Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A few good "natural" wines

I've got an article for Palate Press up today about Natural Wine Week in San Francisco that I won't repeat here.

This is just a little supplement. The article mentions only a few natural wines because it's an overview of the event. Here are a few more great wines I tasted, with ratings on the 100-point scale:

Arnot-Roberts Vare Vineyard Napa Valley Ribolla Gialla 2009 ($32): Winery co-owner Duncan Arnot Myers said this is from the only Ribolla Gialla vines in America, brought into the country in 1999. I like the length and vibrancy of the lime and melon fruit, and there's good acidity. It's pricey, but when you consider scarcity and vineyard location it's not a terrible deal. 91

Arnot-Roberts Hudson Vineyard Carneros Syrah 2008 ($59): I'll be honest -- I prefer the cheaper Clary Ranch Syrah I described in the story, which I would give 98 points if Palate Press used point ratings. But this wine is outstanding also. It tastes more Californian, with black and red plum fruit as well as floral and peppery notes. The fruit seems to blacken on the finish. 93

Clos Roche Blanche Touraine Sauvignon Blanc 2008 ($19): Smells like limestone and clay; tastes like pineapple skin with lots of mineral on a long finish that seems to dry out the tongue, thus provoking another sip. Or maybe I was just thirsty. 89

Clos Tue-Boeuf Cheverny 2009 ($19): Red plum flavors with aromas of flowers and Tequila. It's chewy, even sticky, on the palate, but balanced with a long finish. 90

Domaine De la Pepiere Sevre et Maine Muscadet Sur Lie 2009 ($14): Like licking a stone, with hints of sea salt and a slight beery note in the background. If you ever put a stone in your mouth as a kid, this will bring back the feeling. 89

Francois Chidaine Touraine Rouge 2008 ($13): Lively wine with ripe red plum flavor, floral and peppery notes and a long finish. Made from Pineau d'Aunis, Malbec and Cabernet Franc. 91

Lioco "Indica" Mendocino County 2007 ($16): You have to like a wine named after a strain of marijuana. Quick lesson on marijuana varieties: "sativa" is the type of pot that makes you blather about the 10 best concerts you ever saw, whereas "indica" is the type that makes you melt into the couch, uninterested in changing the TV channel even if it's stuck on home shopping. This wine is a blend of Carignane, Petite Sirah, Mourvedre and Grenache and it's named in tribute to Mendocino County's more famous farm product. I only had two sips -- intense but not fat, red plum and cherry, seems to get more tart as it develops -- and the room around me seemed too crowded, so I went to eat something. Coincidence? 89

Monday, August 30, 2010

Cool-climate wines in the hottest part of Napa

I was about to delete a press release about a guy buying a winery in Calistoga to make cool-climate wines when I put on my imaginary beret and tried to think of it as a Frenchman would -- it's bizarre.

In Europe, the prevailing belief is that a winery is a part of terroir.

If you want to call a wine Rioja, you have to actually make it in Rioja. You can't buy the grapes and truck them to Ribera del Duero. If you do, you have to call it a Vino de Mesa -- table wine.

Obviously we don't follow this thinking in the U.S. A winemaker like Adam Lee can buy grapes in Oregon, truck them to California to process at his winery, and still use the Willamette Valley appellation. Americans don't think the winery location matters.

Europeans disagree for essentially two reasons. First, it's possible that yeast in the grape growing region will be different than yeast in the winery region, and they consider yeast a part of terroir. Yeast is at the heart of the "natural wine" movement, and different yeasts definitely impart different flavors.

Second, it's a full-employment philosophy. Big wine conglomerates in Europe have to build wineries in every region in which they operate, and that creates more jobs. In contrast, the first thing a company like Diageo does when they buy a winery like Rosenblum is consolidate facilities and lay people off.

Though I feel badly for workers who lose their jobs, I side more with the American way of thinking on this. Why shouldn't Schramsberg buy Marin County grapes for its sparkling wine?

Nonetheless, while I'm happy for Mark and Teresa Aubert, who just purchased the former August Briggs winery on Silverado Trail in Calistoga, it strikes me as, well, bizarre.

Mark Aubert is best known for his intense, full-bodied Chardonnays from cool regions. He'll still be buying the grapes from chilly Sonoma Coast and Carneros vineyards, but he'll be trucking them into the hottest part of Napa Valley.

I don't want to imply that heat is a practical problem beyond timing: he will have to make sure he gets the grapes early in the morning. Once the grapes get to the winery, that's what air-conditioning is for.

But what I do think is weird is that Napa Valley Chardonnay has a taste profile that is (in)famous: Fat, gooey, low in acid. Less-sophisticated wine drinkers enjoy it, whereas Aubert's normal audience are collectors and aficionados.

I don't think yeast plays the main role in the Napa Chardonnay taste: it's winemaker decision, playing to the marketplace. But still: if I'm in the hottest part of Napa Valley, and I see a Chardonnay-focused winery, I expect the wines to have that Napa Valley flavor. And these, hopefully, will not.

Aubert's wines will still have the grapes' region of origin on the bottle; Sonoma Coast will be prominent on the front label if the grapes are from there, whereas "bottled in Calistoga" will be tiny on the back. There shouldn't be any consumer confusion.

Still, it does make you wonder what exactly "terroir" is, and why -- in an ongoing tough time for northern California wineries -- there weren't any cheaper winery facilities in a cooler-climate area.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Dinner with Robert Parker

The first time I saw Robert Parker speak, at a tasting at the Culinary Institute of America, he made some strong statements of opinion as fact. Grenache is best when you do this. Cabernet is best when you do that.

In a large auditorium full of winery people, only Tim Mondavi challenged him. Tim disagreed with Parker on some point about California terroir; forgive me, I don't remember what the point was. What I do remember thinking was, in this room full of people dependent on high ratings for wine sales, you have to have the stature (and bank account) of Tim Mondavi to publicly disagree with Robert Parker.

Or, you can pay $1500 to have dinner with him, and have the chance to ask whatever you like. What region/varietal does he think is the next big thing? Does he ever drink chilled red wine on a hot day? When was the last time he had a Diet Pepsi?

Parker will be hosting a dinner at Press restaurant in St. Helena on Nov. 5. There will be 10 tables of 6, with an extra seat for Parker at each table; he'll get up and move around. It's officially a "BYOB," so you can bring a 3-liter box of Big House White and see how many points it gets.

Red meat will be provided, literally (USDA prime), by Bryan Flannery, who CIA Associate Managing Director Reuben Katz calls "the Parker of America's food purveyors."

And it's tax deductible, because the proceeds benefit the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and The Wine Advocate scholarships at the CIA's wine studies program.

Click here for more info.


While I'm on the subject of pricey fun from the CIA, the folks at Eisch, a family-owned artisanal glassmaker in Germany, have created a special Vintners Hall of Fame decanter. It's $245, of which $100 is tax-deductible. You have to order by Sept. 20 to get it in time for the holidays. I've been to the Eisch plant and I can tell you why: it's surprising how much work they still do by hand.

Click here for more info on that one.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Vintners Hall of Fame: About this year's ballot

Forgive the absence of snark in this post. I'm writing in my role as Chairman of the Vintners Hall of Fame Electoral College to talk about this year's ballot.

This will be the fifth induction class for the Hall, which the Culinary Institute of America started in 2007. I was not involved with the initial class but have been in charge of the ballot and election procedures ever since.

First, the ballot. I'm not going to run biographies of everyone, but the ballot sent to voters has a bio of each nominee.
General category:

John A. De Luca
Randy Dunn
Fred Franzia
Josh Jensen
Robert M. Parker Jr.
Vince Petrucci
Joel Peterson
Andy Quady
Richard Sanford
Angelo Sangiacomo
Vernon Singleton
Jed Steele
Charles Sullivan
Bob Trinchero
Nils Venge

Pioneer category:

Cesar Chavez
Hamilton Crabb
Richard Graff
Eugene Hilgard
Charles LeFranc
Myron Nightingale
August Sebastiani

Votes are already coming in to determine which of these people will join the 31 people already in the Vintners Hall of Fame.

My fellow Nominating Committee member Alder Yarrow wrote a very interesting post earlier this summer, just before the committee met, to solicit suggestions for the ballot. One thing I learned from comments on that post was that many people aren't happy that every deserving vintner isn't in the Hall already.

Folks, we're working on it.

Here are some people who were NOT in the National Baseball Hall of Fame after four induction classes:
Wilbert Robinson, King Kelly, Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown, Frank "Home Run" Baker, Rube Waddell, Hack Wilson, John Montgomery Ward, and all three of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance. And Marvin Miller -- the most important baseball man of my lifetime -- is still not in.

Here are some acts who were NOT in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after four induction classes: The Who, The Kinks, The Byrds, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Bill Grahm, The Doors, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Dick Clark, The Grateful Dead, Bob Marley, Neil Young, Janis Joplin, Frank Zappa, and some English band named Led Zeppelin. And Nirvana still hasn't made it.

At the VHF, we're now inducting about 5 people per year. We have about 150 years of California winemaking to honor -- about the same as baseball, and 2 1/2 times as long as rock and roll. So if the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame took 10 classes to induct Led Zeppelin, how long will it take us to get to every deserving vintner?

Here's how it works.

First, our nominating committee meets to create a ballot. In the second year of the Hall, the committee was entirely journalists and historians. I have invited living Hall members to participate and this year they made up nearly half of the committee. Thanks to Gerald Asher, Andy Beckstoffer, Darrell Corti, Randall Grahm and Carole Meredith for giving up their time to join Mike Dunne, Charles Henning, Reuben Katz, John Olney, Charles Sullivan, Paul Wagner, Alder Yarrow and myself this year.

There are two ballot categories: Pioneers, for people dead 10 years on induction night, and the general category, for everybody else. This is for convenience; once in, a Hall of Famer is a Hall of Famer.

Once we come up with the ballot, it is voted on by the Electoral College: about 75 wine writers, wine historians and living Hall of Famers. The people with the most votes get in.

It's better to induct people while they're alive. Shouldn't they live to see the respect they deserve? And let me tell you, it is a pleasure to see it. This year's induction ceremony was both fun and moving.

Many vintners who richly deserve induction are no longer with us. I think everyone on this year's Pioneer ballot -- and last year's -- is a deserving Hall of Famer. But we're only inducting one or two Pioneers per year, so it's going to take a while. And let's face it: they can wait more easily than the living.

In picking the general category ballot, we look at last year's vote totals. Most people with support last year will stay on the ballot, while those with few votes are replaced. They're not ineligible forever; we just give the voters some other names to consider, since they passed judgment so recently. How do we come up with the new names? Somebody on the committee advocates for someone. In our closed discussions, many names are brought up, and I'm annually reminded of how many more years it's going to take to get all the deserving people in.

For the pioneer ballot, we try to give mostly new names each year because there are so many deserving people; we could easily put in 20 at once. But why? Why not have a more special celebration of the life of each one?

I'm sorry if your favorite legendary vintner isn't in the Hall yet, or possibly not even on the ballot. But why not do something about it?

For the baseball hall of fame, there are online campaigns for guys like Bert Blyleven that sometimes last years. With the Vintners Hall of Fame, you don't need to be a newspaper columnist to start campaigning for someone; anybody with a blog can make the case for their candidate.

But please, do make the case. Don't just whine "OMG why is Joe Winemaker not in?" Lots of deserving people aren't in. Explain why Joe should get in ahead of everybody else. And don't just email me, because even if I help put him on the ballot, you have to get the Electoral College to vote for him. That's why you need your piece online, where voters from around the country can see it. I look forward to reading it, and believe me, I will.

That's it for this post. The snark in this space will resume shortly.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Chinese wine era might be a good thing

What's the world going to be like when China is the pre-eminent power?

I'm not going to speculate about what it will mean for our economy; that's for other blogs. I feel a lot better about the wine aspect of Chinese domination after a discussion I had recently with Jeannie Cho Lee, Hong Kong's first Master of Wine.

American and European wine drinkers like to feel superior to the Chinese. Wealthy Chinese are willing to spend so much for top Bordeaux that we can't afford them anymore. I can't tell you how many wine industry professionals have told me, "That wine is wasted on them."

Now I'm not so sure about that. In fact, wealthy Chinese may be just what we need to reset some priorities for wine producers.

Lee made some interesting points about how Chinese in the wealthiest cities experience food and drink differently from Westerners, and what it might mean for wine.

She's quick to caution that "Chinese food" is too big a category; some regional Chinese food is spicy; some is lamb-based while others use more seafood; some uses bread instead of rice. It's like how "American food" includes raw oysters, burritos and cheese fries. How do you pick a wine to go with "American food"?

All of that said, Lee's most interesting point was about texture -- something we rarely talk about in American food or wine.

"If you look at the top foods in Asian cuisine, there's no flavor, it's all texture," Lee said. "Shark's fin soup (right). Bird's nest soup. The flavors are very bland, but these are very expensive dishes that are highly prized."

So what kind of wine would you want with shark's fin soup? Keep in mind that the people eating it are the ones with money to spend.

Lee's answer: you want a mature wine in which the tannins have softened. You don't want an exuberant young wine, white or red, because it will overwhelm the delicate dish.

"Among the real food connoisseurs, people prefer the mature wines that give that harmonious effect," Lee said. Indeed, with each of three courses served at Colgin Estate (thanks Ann), we got both an old and a young wine, and I liked the older wine better.

The implication is this: If the Chinese market is what top wineries want to pursue, they will have to make wines that age well. This runs counter to the trend of the last 20 years, in which wines have gotten bigger and riper and more ready to drink now, because that's how we Westerners prefer them.*

(*There are exceptions to that? Really? I thought all round eyes were alike.)

Lee says her experience with many wealthy Chinese diners is that they order a highly rated, expensive wine of recent vintage and it sits mostly undrunk on the table. "They know they don't like the wine, but they don't have confidence in their wine knowledge to say it's not their fault, it's the wine," she said.

I asked if that was because these wines were high in alcohol, and she corrected me.

"Asians have no problem with high alcohol," she said. "They're coming down from the local whiskies which are 40%. What is a problem is really high unresolved tannins. It's about ripeness and finesse and the midpalate."

Lee says this is the reason the Hong Kong auction market is so active: "People are seeking older wines."

So the upshot is, if you want to sell wines to the Chinese, you need* wines of elegance.

*Unless your name is Lafite, which she said means "beautiful woman" in many Chinese dialects. That's why Lafite Rothschild is now the currency of bribes in China -- everybody wants it, and it's less troublesome to be caught with a bottle of wine than cash. Nobody is especially interested in Mouton Rothschild; maybe we'll still get bottles of that in the US in the future. But I digress.

This is why I welcome the Chinese wine era. Who would you rather see wine producers around the world kowtow to: people who eat cheeseburgers, or people who eat shark's fin soup?

Of course, the Chinese wine era may still be a few decades away. But there has been rapid progress, even among the average consumer; a researcher blogged just last week about how most Chinese women see red wine as a health-food drink, putting them ahead already of the one-third of American adults who don't drink alcohol at all.

As for the continued whispers about Chinese consumers' use of wine, Lee pointed out that anybody mocking another culture's dining habits is throwing a stone from a glass house.

"The good news in mainland China is we're no longer mixing wine with Sprite," Lee said. "In England, they're still mixing milk with tea."

Friday, August 20, 2010

You know you've become a popular blogger when ...

The following are paraphrased emails because I don't want to give the sending companies the publicity they sought.

Dear Mr. Gray:

We loved your blog post! May we run it on our site? Your writing will be exposed to a much wider audience!

(I said no and they ran it anyway -- without my name on it.)

Dear Mr. Gray:

We are introducing a new widget/book/booze. Respond to this email with requests for samples.
Me: Sure, send it over.
E-mailer: Who are you?

(I had this conversation three times already this year.)

Dear Mr. Gray:

Did you know that a credit card your readers already carry entitles them to discounts at tasting rooms, blah blah blah ...

(This company pays to advertise on everything from rock concert stage sets to stadium urinal walls, but they try to sweet-talk bloggers into giving them advertising for free. I asked them to buy an ad and got no response, then precisely the same pitch the following week.)

Dear Mr. Gray:

You are contributing to the scourge of alcoholism. There are many deaths to be laid at your feet.

(Can I walk over them like a river of logs?)

Dear Mr. Gray:

I am allergic to wine. Every time I drink it I get sick. What sort of wine should I try?

(From my long medical background, my informed opinion is, uh ... next question.)

Dear Mr. Gray:

Would you be interested in writing for our website? We won't be able to pay you, but you will have the opportunity for wider readership.

(I've had this email at least 10 times, always from websites that have a lot fewer comments than mine, for what that's worth.)

Dear Mr. Gray:

You recently wrote about a Chardonnay. We also make Chardonnay. It's matured in oak barrels for blah blah and we stir the lees with weasel tails blah blah and would you please tell your readers about this wine with a link to our website?

(Wineries -- this sounds much more sincere if you send the email within, say, a month of the post in question. I've gotten this email about posts I wrote six months ago.)

Dear Mr. Gray:

We have selected your blog as our Wine Blog of the Day! We are attaching the code for this badge, which you can place in every one of your posts to show that you have received this honor.

(The badge was a link taking readers to the site in question.)

Dear Mr. Gray:

Our restaurant in South Beach, Miami has introduced a new cocktail hour, with drinks half price for thirty minutes! Be sure to tell your readers!

(I should keep a running count on states from which I've gotten this one; it's up to about 30 by now.)

Dear Mr. Gray:

Would your readers like to learn about a new idea that's going to change their life?

(Maybe they would, but I wouldn't.)

The last one's verbatim:

Dear Mr. Gray:

Your responses to comments are so mean-spirited. Are you really such a jerk?
Me: No, I only play one on the Internet.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The 100-point scale and liberal elitism

I was reading yet another excoriation of the 100-point rating scale by some blogger I hadn't heard of when I realized something:

1) Complaints for a change in the system come from nannies who want me to drink what they like.

2) The above is what American conservatives think of liberals in general.

Suddenly I saw the whole 100-point-scale debate in a different light. Are its opponents wine aficionados trying to more accurately capture the subjective experience of wine? Or are they taste police trying to outlaw other people's fun? Smug liberal elitists with a narrow band of approved pleasures who want everyone to have only the experiences they deem appropriate?

I submit, 100-point-scale haters, that you are all of the above.

Now before you go down to the Comments to flame me (if you stand behind your beliefs as I do, you'll put your name on it), here is my reasoning.

You don't have to follow the 100-point scale! Nobody is telling you to buy wines based on it.

What you're complaining about is the fact that other people like the scale. What business is that of yours?

The 100-point scale exists because a lot of American consumers -- and retailers -- like it. Wineries, as a whole, do not like it; it causes more problems than it solves, because not every wine gets 90 points from someone. But if consumers didn't like it -- if they preferred a four-star system or "recommended" wines or badges or gold medals -- then they would seek out and buy wines recommended under those systems, because all of them are available.

The marketplace chose the 100-point scale.

So when you rail against the scale, you're taking the side of producers against the will of the buying public. You don't trust people to make their own buying decisions.

In short, you look down on people.

I'm tolerant of, and frankly guilty of, a lot of liberal elitism when it comes to how other people's buying decisions affect society. I'm very pro-environment and think we should buy more organically raised products. I'm against excessive packaging. I think we should tax items based on their total cost, including such costs as CO2 emissions, dismantling and disposal.

What does the 100-point-scale have to do with societal good, though? It doesn't discriminate against biodynamic wines; it doesn't discriminate against anything. In fact, a progressive ratings organization could tweak its scale to give extra points for lightweight bottles or organic viticulture, and if the marketplace agreed with those values, that organization could be as successful as the Wine Advocate.

It's not the 100-point scale's fault that Jay Miller likes fruit syrup. It's like saying you don't like democracy because 48% of Americans decided George W. Bush would make a good president (in fact, I'll bet there are some liberals who think just that.) You don't like Jay Miller's ratings? Issue ratings of your own. Compete with him; don't grab the ball and say we're all going to play a new game based on rules you're making up on your blog.

I don't generally like the pejorative term "liberal elitist." When it comes to leaders, I want somebody who went to a good school, not a former wrestling impresario, to use one current example.

But I don't want to share a bottle of wine with a liberal elitist, nor do I want one in my ear when I make a buying decision. And I'm a lifelong Democrat. Imagine how liberal elitist wine-buying philosophy is received by the majority of this country, who are more conservative than I am.

Listen up, pretentious snobs: If you want to drink wine made from natural yeast with no added sulfites and extended skin contact and a bit of oxidation so that it's complex and has an aroma combining the Pacific Ocean, elderberry tea and your roommate's old shoes, that's fantastic. And if you can accurately describe the wine and its producers in an appealing enough way, maybe I'll want to try it too. I'm under your tent more often than not.

But don't tell the American consumer they can't simplify their rankings of wine into a democratic, anti-classist, easy-to-understand system that levels the playing field so that Argentinian peasant farmers and French hereditary land owners have the same chance at glory.

There's my rant. Now it's your turn. Go ahead and rate this post -- on the 100-point scale, please.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Wineries have figured out young drinkers

Sometimes the world changes so gradually that we don't notice. Ten years ago, a common theme of wine business articles was that wineries didn't know how to reach young consumers.

I just spent the weekend at Outside Lands, a music festival with a strong food-and-wine program. Because of -- not despite -- the youth of the audience, the wine selection featured quite a few artisanal brands and some obscure varietals.

That was no aberration. If you hold an event for baby boomers, you might have to stock up on white Zinfandel and buttery Chardonnays. But if 20-somethings are the target, you can expect a knowledgeable crowd that's itching to do some comparative tasting.

The current generation is the smartest group of wine consumers the US has ever developed. They make this country's future as the world's largest wine market more hopeful for all concerned. Just imagine what this generation will want to drink if the economy ever recovers and they have more disposable income. I suspect they will reward iconoclasts and people making an honest effort to make great, unique wine.

Back to my main point. How did this happen? Young consumers aren't easier to reach. The newspaper industry -- supposedly communications experts -- hasn't solved that riddle yet.

Here are a few things the US wine industry has done right.

1) Banishing pretension
A huge barrier to wine appreciation for older generations was the fear of being exposed as unknowledgeable. US wineries at all levels have consistently delivered the message that your tastes are your own, and you're not wrong for having them. Compare that to France, where you still encounter sommeliers who sniff at you for mispronouncing Menetou-Salon, or not knowing the grape of Condrieu. No wonder younger French people aren't drinking as much wine as their elders. The French wine industry could learn from the US on this.

2) Holding frequent tastings in cities everywhere
It's exhausting for US winemakers to travel constantly, but the effort has paid off. It used to be that if you were in middle America you were lucky to find one restaurant in town with an overpriced but adequate wine list. Now, it's possible to find a good wine list in almost any good-sized American city. Traveling winemakers and brand ambassadors brought that enthusiasm to the provinces.

3) Creating useful websites
When I started writing about wine, I could never fact-check on a winery website because it was likely created by the owner's teenage son and hadn't been updated in months. Now, I'm disappointed if I can't immediately find the harvest information for a particular vintage. Yes, this is a step that all businesses, not just wineries, are doing better. But it's still a noteworthy improvement from even five years ago.

4) Supporting social media
Like a lot of brick-and-mortar businesses, many wineries are still befuddled by social media. But many wineries have jumped ahead of the curve with Twitter tastings and Facebook fan pages and all that sort of thing. It's all incremental, and I'm not convinced tweets sell wine, but overall it serves to make wine seem like a part of the fabric of life online.

5) Supporting young sommeliers
Enthusiastic young sommeliers are a major reason that this generation is America's greatest when it comes to wine. Wineries have done a better job this millennium of reaching out to beginners, offering visits to vineyards and vertical tastings, etc., that used to be reserved only for longtime loyalists to a particular brand.

6) Simplified labeling
Do younger drinkers need simpler labels more than older drinkers? Not at all -- in fact, baby boomers need simpler labels more, because they're the ones with the weak eyes. But simplified labels do make it easier for first-time customers to pick up a brand and try it. German wineries are just starting to figure this out.

7) Making unique wines
Younger customers are more experimental than older ones. Sure, you can sell them Yellow Tail, but you can also sell them single-vineyard Grenache if you explain what it is. And while younger consumers buy a lot of Yellow Tail, it's the single-vineyard Grenaches that get them excited enough to tweet and invite their friends for a kitchen table tasting. There's only so much that marketing can accomplish; you have to have an interesting product, and wineries deserve credit for being interesting.

It all makes me wish I was 25 again. The wine world that many of us grew up in was a class-segregated place where the best bottles were kept in a hidden cellar and nothing interesting was ever sold by the glass. And if you could get wine at a concert, Vendange varietal wine in individual plastic bottles was the high end.

This weekend, I had a glass of Wind Gap Sonoma Coast Syrah (just 12.7% alcohol!) while listening to Phoenix (crazy lead singer body surfed 50m into the audience). That's the way wine should be, and that's why 20-somethings have embraced it. Good job, wine industry. Pat yourself on the collective back.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The World Cup of cuisine

I'm jonesing for the World Cup. I can't stand waiting another 4 years for an event where professional athletes actually play with passion.

One of many conversations I got into during the Cup was the relationship between a good food country and a good soccer country. This year, there wasn't much except at the top, because Spain is probably the hottest food country in the world right now. But the Netherlands? Uruguay? Not so much.

So I got to thinking: What if there was a World Cup of cuisine? Who would be invited?

First I had to define my terms. I'm talking about cuisine, not restaurants; otherwise Singapore would qualify. And that means cuisine has to be exportable. You might be able to eat really well in Georgia, but it's hard to find great Georgian food outside the former Soviet Union.

I started counting up countries and discovered 16 would be the right number of nations. Eight is too few and 32 would be too inclusive; there's a big dropoff after about the first 20.

One big difference between soccer and cuisine is the status of Asia. A midget in the soccer world, Asia is a colossus in cuisine, with 6 of the 16 spots and the overwhelming favorite to win the whole thing. Africa, which got 5 bids to the soccer World Cup, doesn't have any good bets to make the quarterfinals. And South America was completely shut out, possibly because I'm not a big steak eater.

Here are my bids to the mythical World Cup of Cuisine

North America

Cuba: Best food by far among the Caribbean nations, kept vibrant by the diaspora in Florida. Extra points for the rocket-fuel coffee.

Mexico: No longer dominating CONCACAF, but still the regional power in this group. And they're also cooking all the food for the US team.

United States: When you talk about exportable cuisine, you can't ignore the ubiquity and influence of American fast food. I guess I'm guilty of creating the standards in such a way that the US qualifies. Would I root for McDonald's over, say, Italian pasta or Japanese sushi in the quarterfinals? I'm pretty patriotic, so maybe. That must be what it feels like to be a Yankees fan.


France: If this tournament were actually played, the French culinary team might embarrass themselves as much as the soccer team did. This traditional power is resting on its reputation, and has gotten stuffy and uncreative. Ripe for a first-round upset.

Greece: The diner repertoire is what makes it famous, but Greece also prepares cephalopods as well as anyone in Europe.

Italy: A certainty for the semifinals; the real European food power.

Spain: Great ingredients and the most experimentally minded chefs in the world make this Spain's culinary moment. One glaring weakness -- where are the vegetables?

Turkey: It's controversial to give bids to both Greece and Turkey when their cuisines are so similar. But which one do you deny? Turkey does a slightly better job with shawarma meats, and while Greek cuisine is more influential in the USA, Turkey is more powerful across Europe.


Ethiopia: It's ironic that a country that can't feed itself has the best cuisine on the continent. Love that injera bread, a napkin you can eat.

Morocco: Couscous and tajine are great, but something I wish was exported a little more is mint tea made from the whole leaves.


China: The overwhelming favorite: what town anywhere in the world doesn't have a Chinese restaurant? And the more regional the cuisine gets, the greater the food.

India: Having been to India, after suffering daily from excessive capsaicin and marauding micro-organisms, I can report that if you're not raised there with immunity to both, it's much better to eat Indian food abroad.

Japan: A humble people, the Japanese will tell you that ramen is Chinese food, but the style aficionados love was developed in Nippon. And there's sushi, which I knew had gone mainstream when I saw an article for the top 10 sushi restaurants in Houston, Texas.

Korea: As a nation, we're just learning to enjoy kimchi, and now we find out that there, are like, 50 kinds we haven't tried yet? You have to hand it to a nation that was dominated by China and Japan for most of its history, yet still developed its own unique cuisine, in part by burying pots of rotting cabbage underground.

Thailand: Once I went with some Pennsylvania friends to a Thai restaurant where all they ordered was roast meat on a stick with peanut sauce. That's good, but wow, do they have a world of stuff to discover.

Vietnam: We lost a war but gained banh mi and vermicelli. Fair trade?

Just missing
Argentina, Germany, Indonesia, Peru, Singapore: I feel bad at not including any country from South America, but of the 16 qualifiers, which do you dump? The obvious choice is either Greece or Turkey, but both have better cuisine than Argentina and Peru. Singapore didn't make it because it's too hard to separate its cuisine from China's and Malaysia's (not to mention India's.). German food is great in Germany but that's a function of pristine ingredients; the cuisine doesn't export well.

Now I need to get 16 chefs, a kitchen stadium and a big appetite. Viva El Copa Gastronimique!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

USA to foreign winemaker: We don't need you

This weekend you might want to drop by the Finger Lakes Riesling Festival to say goodbye to the region's best winemaker.

He's not leaving tomorrow, but unless some unknown bureaucrat at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services changes positions, Johannes Reinhardt could be booted out of this country next summer.

The reason is that winemaking isn't considered a valuable skill by the USCIS. We have plenty of domestic winemakers, so why would we need some German guy?

Except we do.

"Johannes is unique and extremely important to the Finger Lakes wine industry," says Jim Tresize, president of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation. "His expertise is unparalleled in the industry. He's irreplaceable. We have other good winemakers but we have only one Johannes."

Johannes Reinhardt, 43, has been in the Finger Lakes for 11 years, and at Anthony Road Wine Company for the last 10. He arrived on a student visa and went to work at Dr. Konstantin Frank winery.

The following year, he was hired by Anthony Road as winemaker. He upgraded to the H-1B professional visa, which he could renew for as long as six years.

While the H-1B visa was still running, Reinhardt applied for a green card, to become a legal resident. But he was denied.

You, the German guy who makes the sweet wines -- we don't need you.

"This application went to Nebraska," Reinhardt said. "They don't see New York as a major wine region. They don't see a winemaker as somebody who contributes to society."

Do I have to tell my readers that a winemaker is a craftsman, somewhere between an artist and a scientist, and that good ones are unique? That even though Americans can do the job, and do it superbly, our wine culture benefits by having non-Americans bring in their own styles?

Do I have to make the point that making better wine improves the economy?

I guess I do, just in case the USCIS reads this.

I could blather about how good his wines are, but instead I'll just show you the hardware.

At this year's Riesling du Monde in Strasbourg, France, Anthony Road was the only non-European winery to win one of the 7 Trophies of Excellence. That's sure to get attention among international Riesling fans, and could help US exports.

At last year's New York Wine & Food Classic, Anthony Road won the Governor's Cup for the single best wine out of 805 entered.

And Reinhardt's not just making good wine for Anthony Road -- he's sharing information with his neighbors.

"Johannes has taken dessert wines up to a world class level," says Peter Bell (right), winemaker for Fox Run Vineyards. "They're no longer just sugary and unctuous. He's picking individual berries off the vine, a classic German technique. He has some groundbreaking fermentation techniques too. There's nothing written down about this. It's not codified in any book. And he shares those techniques with winemakers in the region. He pioneered winemakers getting together and tasting each other's wines and discussing what we're doing."

I have quotes from other winemakers saying similar things about Reinhardt. So why isn't this important to the USCIS?

Why isn't winemaking classified as a job category we need?

The savvy reader might be thinking, "Why not just marry an American and get a spouse visa?" Inconveniently, Reinhardt fell in love with an Indonesian student of food science, Imelda, and they married in June 2008. She's still at Cornell University on a student visa studying bell peppers; their tastes converge at Cabernet Franc rose. Imelda may also have difficulty getting a green card when she graduates and that's one more reason we're likely to lose this talented couple to Germany.

I asked Reinhardt why he wanted to come here from Franconia in the first place, and stay when legally he's not all that welcome.

"My family had a winery for 600 years," he said. "For me, tradition was a bit too much. To come here was great freedom. For me it's great as a German winemaker to be here and to have the freedom to make the best wine I can. My dream is to own a vineyard in New York and make a couple thousand cases."

Reinhardt is not giving up on his dream. He has hired an immigration attorney and will keep pressing for a green card.

"The best things in my life I needed a lot of fight and patience for," Reinhardt said. "I have to keep fighting for the green card and not give up."

Reinhardt was leery of being interviewed, and as the husband of a woman with a US green card, I understand. Most Americans born here don't realize that the USCIS has absolute power over immigrants -- even if they're married to an American -- and can deny a residence visa if you don't know the type of toothpaste your spouse prefers. I'm not kidding.

I also know how the USCIS thinks, because I had a good friend abroad whose job for two years was to give or deny work visas. We hiked together and often debated the issue. His point was always that if he gave a visa to a chef, that chef was taking a job that an American could do. It didn't matter if he was a good chef; an American could be trained to be a good chef as well.

OK, my friend. Finger Lakes winemakers need Johannes Reinhardt to give them that training.

"This guy's never going to go on unemployment," Bell said. "He's going to pay taxes. He'll never take government welfare.

"The No. 1 reason to visit the Finger Lakes is wineries," Bell said. "There are bed and breakfasts and restaurants that depend on the industry. Without people like Johannes, those people will suffer."

"If we lose Johannes, it will eviscerate our industry."

Monday, August 9, 2010

Wine outshines music at Outside Lands

Outside Lands must be the only concert in the world where the participating wineries were announced before the bands.

This wasn't the case when the Golden Gate Park festival started in 2008, but that's because Radiohead was the headliner. This year, Ridge Vineyards is the headliner; Paul Draper's winery sells more units than Kings of Leon, the best-known band.

In its third year, Outside Lands has reduced to two days, and the musical star power has dimmed. Last year, Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews Band and the Beastie Boys headed the list. This year, the show this coming Saturday is headlined by a Grateful Dead alumni gig (wake me when the drum solo ends).

So instead, the promoters are pushing wine and food. And in that area, the stars are aligned.

The food-and-wine lineup, for a concert, is flat-out awesome. Here's the food purveyor list. Restaurant highlights include Maverick and The Slanted Door's takeout sister Out the Door, but I wouldn't skip my favorite Mexican restaurant in San Francisco, El Huarache Loco, normally found on Saturday mornings at Alemany Farmers Market. I'm going to write about the wine lineup below; it's fabulous.

However, you have to pay separately for each serving of food and wine. Which raises the question: if I can get my street-food fix at Alemany on Saturday morning for free, why should I pay $75 (here) for a single-day ticket to Outside Lands? Especially when you can eat some of the same stuff -- albeit without the great wine selection -- the following weekend with no admission charge at the SF Street Food Festival?

Good question. The street food festival serves up Korean tacos, but no Al Green or The Strokes.

Also, the only food-and-wine festivals I enjoy tend to be ones with high pricetags, like Good Eats at ZAP. That's $125 a ticket, but all the food and wine is free once you get in. The sticker shock keeps the lines of people down. That isn't what the organizers are looking for, I'm sure.

What I might be writing here is the eulogy for a music festival that's trying to become about food and wine. I'm not sure why the lineup isn't as good. Last year they had the Dead Weather, TV on the Radio, M.I.A. and a bunch of other tasty underbill acts. Perhaps this year they're not paying as well, and music industry reports have been consistent about 2010 being a moribund year for tours. All of that said, Kings of Leon? Another Grateful Dead alumni gig? I'm not sure either of those acts could sell out The Fillmore on their own.

So Peter Eastlake, the wine director for Outside Lands, has the weight of the festival on his shoulders.

Eastlake, who owns Vintage Berkeley Imports and Solano Cellars, curated a fine festival wine lineup. There are good medium-size wineries that the average music fan has probably heard of: Bonny Doon Vineyard, Iron Horse and Robert Sinskey. And there are even more great small wineries that people should get to know: A Donkey and Goat, Bedrock Wine Co., Copain, Peay.

"If you go to most music festivals, the food sucks, and there's no consideration given to the alcohol," Eastlake said. "But what is San Francisco known for? The beauty of doing this festival in San Francisco is, every one of my friends is really into Phoenix (the French band, left, not the city), and these are people who go to Nopa twice a week."

Eastlake said that the wine has gone in the opposite direction from the music this year, as he has added comparatively big names like Hess Collection and Murphy-Goode for the first time.

He tried to go bigger; he got Bedrock's Morgan Peterson-Twain, but Morgan's dad passed. That's why there's no Constellation or Bronco or Gallo or Wine Group wines -- it's not because Eastlake didn't ask.

"To me, Ravenswood would be a great known winery to have. They wouldn't do it," Eastlake said. "I want to incorporate some of these bigger wineries because it could be a powerful marketing tool for them. It baffles me. Why would you not want to pour wine for 5000 people on a Sunday afternoon?"

The wines range from $8 to $20 for a 4-ounce pour. Two years ago, Silver Oak participated at $20 a glass and sold out. "People would walk up and say, 'I'll take four glasses'," Eastlake said.

But Eastlake's joy isn't in selling people what they know. He'd prefer for Tokyo Police Club fans to discover that they have an affinity for Peay Syrah.

"Some of these Peay wines, they cost $30 wholesale. To get a glass of that for $12 or $14 is a wonderful thing," Eastlake said.

I agree -- but there's that pesky $75 ticket fee. I'll be curious to see if the new emphasis on great food and wine saves the festival, or if Outside Lands folds its tent after this one. If so, at least it should have a good-tasting finish.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Livermore Valley wineries finally get a guidebook

Livermore Valley might be the least-known major California wine region.

I think it's fair to call it a major region. Livermore has two big companies -- Wente Vineyards and the Wine Group's flagship, Concannon Vineyard. It has more than 120 years of continuous winemaking history, and more than 40 wineries today.

What it hasn't had until now is a guidebook. And that's a surprise, because Livermore Valley is a popular weekend wine-tasting destination that's less than an hour drive from San Francisco and San Jose.

I'm not going to tell you that Livermore makes better wines than Napa Valley. But I will say this -- if I had to pay the tasting fees, which these days in Calistoga are edging up above $25 per person, I would rather cruise around Livermore. You'll actually meet and chat with the winemakers. It's a non-glitzy experience that's increasingly hard to find in California (another great spot, Hopland, is nowhere near as convenient.)

Of course, it's much harder to plan even a day trip without a guidebook. There's a good map on the Winegrowers Association's official website, but because it's an association, it can't give you any advice about who (or who not) to visit without irritating a member.

Unfortunately, Thomas Wilmer, author of "The Wine Seeker's Guide to Livermore Valley," isn't a wine writer, so he avoids qualitative judgments. But the good news is that Wilmer is an excellent travel writer, which means that he wrote good descriptions and if you read carefully, you should be able to figure out which wineries you're likely to like.

The absence of criticism is more jarring in the restaurant section than for the wineries. It's easy to tell that Wilmer likes the Restaurant at Wente Vineyards because he gives it more space (2 1/2 pages) than any other. (I second Wilmer -- that's a fantastic restaurant.) But does it mean he doesn't like Izzy's Steaks & Chops because he gives it only two sentences? I'm not sure.

As a writer, I learned something: readers will accept platitude-only copy about wineries more easily than about restaurants. Or maybe that's just me.

Anyway, this blog post is far more prickly than the book, but also less useful. Wilmer doesn't tell you that Thomas Coyne is worth a visit and Retzlaff Estate isn't, and rereading the sections, I'm not sure you could discern that. But he does capture the spirit of both places well, and he gives the tasting room hours, tasting fees, and varieties made -- all things you need from a guidebook.

I'm not going to pretend to be a guide to Livermore Valley; I have visited only occasionally. But I'll supplement the book and say a weekend itinerary should include:

* Cedar Mountain Winery
* Concannon Vineyard
* Mitchell Katz Winery
* Occasio Winery
* Thomas Coyne Winery
* Dinner at Wente Vineyards

And I'll leave it to Wilmer's book to give you the phone numbers, hours, etc. Order the book here.

And while you've got your credit card out, my advertiser, Wine Chateau, is running a special on Wine Gift Baskets and Discount Wine: Buy 6 or more bottles and get half-off shipping with coupon code "blake68". Fortify yourself for the long, potentially dry week before you get to Livermore Valley.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The 10 most overrated wines

Most wine writers -- outside of Parker and Spectator -- like to highlight what we think are underrated wines. But the universe demands balance.

So today, I present you the Ten Most Overrated Wines. I mean this in some cases literally: a style of wine that gets crazily high ratings when the raters themselves don't drink it with dinner (No. 1). And in some cases figuratively, as when some fans think it's more special than it is (No. 10).

Keep in mind that overrated does not equal bad. Manny Ramirez is overrated, but when healthy he can still hit. Star Wars was overrated because it's not the greatest sci-fi movie ever, but it was still a good yarn.

So here's the list.

10. Italian Pinot Grigio
This wine is figuratively overrated, because wine critics rarely give it much play. But the public loves it and pays a premium for it. Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio sells for $25 and is one of the most popular imports in America, yet at its best it's a mouth rinse. Nothing wrong with that, but why would you pay more than $10 for it?
Buy instead: Portuguese Vinho Verde

9. Super Tuscans
Picking on Italy again, these wines are more literally overrated, as the Wine Advocate seems to think that Italian reds just aren't great if they don't have some Cabernet Sauvignon and maybe some Syrah in them. At most portfolio tastings I've done with Italian wineries, their Super Tuscan is their 4th or 5th best wine. Moreover, even good ones are just generic reds from anywhere. Think about it -- what should a Super Tuscan taste like? What distinguishes that from an Australian Cabernet-Shiraz, or from, say, Big House Red?
Buy instead: Italian Barbera

8. Napa Valley Chardonnay
With the exception of some parts of Carneros and Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley is just not good Chardonnay terroir. It's too hot, so the wine gets too alcoholic. A lot of Americans today claim they don't like Chardonnay, but they often also say they like white Burgundy. What they don't like is Napa Valley Chardonnay, or the gooey, oaky Napa style. I don't blame Napa vintners for making a wine that sells. But there's consistently better Chardonnay from at least five counties in California (Sonoma, Santa Barbara, Mendocino, Monterey, Santa Cruz), and it's cheaper too.
Buy instead: Mendocino County Chardonnay

7. Screaming Eagle
Even when it was great, it wasn't THAT great. I've had the pleasure of tasting this wine a few times in comparison with other expensive Napa Cabernets, and it has never been bad, but it has never been in my top 3 either. New owners have added many more vines and drastically ramped up production. There's always a market for wines as possessions, and having lived in Japan I understand that the reason $100 melons exist is so the recipient knows you paid $100 for the gift. But why pay $10,000 for something that's not the best and is in a downward spiral, when there are other expensive cult wines that are more consistently good?
Buy instead: Hundred Acre, Colgin (What, you were expecting me to say Two Buck Chuck?)

6. Yellow Tail
Unlike Screaming Eagle, when Yellow Tail was great, it really was great value. I remember buying an early Reserve version for $7 and thinking it was one of the best Shirazes I had that year. But too much popularity in the wine business is a temptation from the Devil. Yellow Tail has bumped up its production so much that there's no control over the grapes anymore, and it's not any different from any other generic million case wine on the market. Its fans, though, still seem to think there's something unique about it. If you want something special, even in a cheap wine, you have to look for wine made in reasonable enough quantities that the winemaker can have some control over it.
Buy instead: Grant Burge, an independent Aussie winemaker with character

5. Argentinian Malbec
Why is a fairly bland red grape from a previously little-known wine region suddenly one of the hottest wines on the market? The theory goes that when the economic slowdown hit, people who were used to paying $100 for Cabernets wanted something big and red for less money. The problem is that Malbec is the 4th grape of Bordeaux for a reason: It's just not as interesting as even much-maligned Merlot. Moreover, there's a complete disconnect between price and quality for Argentine Malbec. The best ones are usually $12 to $15, while Malbecs over $25 are almost all overly oaked in an attempt to give them the gravitas that the grape itself doesn't have. So if you must buy Argentine Malbec, make sure it's cheap.
Buy instead: Toro, an intense red from Spain

4. New Zealand Pinot Noir
I'm sorry, kiwis. You're nice people. You make excellent Sauvignon Blanc and much better Chardonnay and Riesling than people realize. But until the world warms up a little more, you're still a white-wine country that makes good red wines for domestic consumption. There's nothing wrong with New Zealand Pinot -- it's pleasant, with good fruit. There are a lot of solid wines. But I've tasted maybe 200 of them, and I have yet to get that "wow" effect that I want from Pinot Noir. Maybe the vines need to get older, but the complexity just isn't there.
Buy instead: Oregon Pinot Noir

3. The Wine Advocate's 100-point wines
This was a stronger category when Robert Parker himself was the keeper of the perfect scores. But Jay Miller hands out 100 points like an elementary school teacher delivering gold stars, and in my experience, often to the least drinkable wine in the portfolio. If you like syrupy sweet wines, you might agree with his suggestions, but there's no reason to spend hundreds of dollars on them -- buy vintage Ports and high-end Paso Robles red blends, neither of which should set you back more than $60. I don't know how I can better express the wrongness of these ratings than this suggestion: If you have a chance to drink either a 93-point wine or a 100-point wine (Wine Advocate scores), always buy the 93-point wine. It will be better.
Buy instead: Wine Review Online 94-point wines

2. Organic wines
This is a huge growth area for Whole Foods, and I've read any number of ignorant pieces online extolling how great it is to drink organic. I'm a locavore, I'm a complete sucker for organic farm-raised food products, yet I never buy organic wine. The reason? Sulfites, a naturally occurring grape byproduct, must be added to wine to preserve its fresh fruit flavors. In Europe, lawmakers realize this; "organic" French wines can have added sulfites. But US organic wine standards don't allow any sulfites, which means the wine is likely to taste like the inside of your shoe. Spoiled wine isn't better for you or the environment. If you're buying this stuff, you are also a sucker for marketing, not the same marketing that draws people to Yellow Tail, but perhaps written by the same copywriters.
Buy instead: Wine made from organically grown grapes; biodynamic wine

1. Cabernet Sauvignon
Remember, I said "overrated" doesn't mean "bad." I love good Cabernet Sauvignon. There's no unfortified wine that ages better. If I want to drink a 40-year-old anything, I want it to be Cab. But that's a very specific situation, and Cabernet Sauvignon is the most popular red wine in America. That's nuts -- it doesn't go well with almost any food other than red meat (which is good with just about any red wine) and you usually have to spend more than $20 to get a good one. Moreover, all wine publications tend to give their highest ratings to Cabernets based on its aging potential. To me, this is a big reason people often drink it with dinner or take it to parties: most 98-point wines are Cabs. But the reverse is not true: most Cabs are not 98-point wines. I'm not saying you should disregard Cab completely. But if you're looking for a red wine that will make your dinner taste better, unless you're eating meat topped with meat, look for almost anything else.
Buy instead: Petite Sirah, Syrah/Shiraz

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Americans who don't drink: uneducated, poor and old

Gallup released its annual poll yesterday about drinking in America. It's a prudish-sounding poll that started way back in 1939, and it gives an interesting perspective on how little America has changed in 71 years.

Here's my favorite part of it: analyzing the fully 1/3 of American adults who don't drink alcohol. This has to be among the highest percentages of any non-Muslim nation, and there's a reason: We still have lots of stupid people.

The facts are these. Americans who don't drink are most likely:

Uneducated: 42% of Americans who haven't gone beyond high school do not drink, compared with only 21% of college graduates.

Poor: 54% of Americans with incomes under $20,000 don't drink, compared with 19% of Americans with incomes over $75,000. (To be fair, it makes economic sense if you're that poor to save your money for food and rent.)

Protestant: 39% of American Protestants ignore the fact that Jesus turned water into wine, and don't drink God's gift to us, compared to 22% of Catholics and 20% of non-Christians.

Old: 41% of people over age 55 don't drink.

I'm glad to see Gallup point out that this is the age group that should be drinking, one glass a day at least, to get the benefits of alcohol in protecting against heart attacks.

One other item from the Gallup poll: The wine producing and writing worlds continue to be mostly male, but the customers in the US are not: Women prefer wine to beer by a huge margin (48 to 27%), while men prefer beer by an even larger margin (54 to 17%).

This makes me feel a bit like Freddy Rumsen on "Mad Men," using my superior knowledge of how women think to reach them on wine issues. Let's see: Wine will help you get married, not drinking wine will keep you single ...

Actually, I can just cite the facts:
Drinking wine makes you more educated, wealthier and younger! And, er, less Protestant.

(If you know the difference between causation and correlation, I'll bet you went to college. Which means if you're not drinking, you should be.)

Monday, August 2, 2010

A tip for finding cool single malt Scotch

Blended whisky makes up 93 percent of the Scotch market. It's the other 7% -- single malts -- that most wine lovers are interested in.

I'll confess that I'm not so interested in blends. Yeah, Chivas Regal and Dewar's are smooth, and the 25-year-old versions of whiskies like these are awesome. However, while I like awesome, I can't afford it: 25-year-olds cost more than $250 a bottle. And "smooth" is not my only goal. If I'm drinking whisky with no "e," I want character. I want to see Sean Connery squint and hear Rent Boy soliloquize. I choose life.

I wrote a column last week for Wine Review Online about the role American oak plays in great single malts; I'm not going to repeat that here.

Instead, I'm going to pass along a tip: Look for malts that form the base of a famous blended whisky.

This is not a very big group. I got three for you:

1) Strathisla, one of the base spirits of Chivas Regal

2) Aberfeldy, which is where they make Dewar's

3) Cardhu, one of the base spirits of Johnnie Walker

Each has a slightly different story.

Strathisla was my favorite of the three. It's from the oldest continuously operated distillery in Scotland, founded in 1789 when making whisky was still illegal.

It's a 12-year-old single malt with a strong flavor of dark chocolate, along with notes of black pepper, orange, seaweed and sea salt. The sea air is strong but I detected no peat.

It's excellent, and I like it better than Chivas. But Pernod Ricard, which owns both, makes only 10,000 cases of it a year, as opposed to 4.5 million cases of Chivas.

"Strathisla is less than 5 percent of the whole Chivas blend but it's the keynote to the blend," says Alan Greig, director of brand education. "It's heavier, more assertive. But it's a small distillery and we need most of it for Chivas Regal."

Fortunately there's enough Strathisla for you to buy it here.

While Strathisla predated Chivas, Aberfeldy was built in response to global demand for Dewar's, although not exactly yesterday: the distillery opened in 1898.

Because it was purpose-built, it's quite a bit larger than Strathisla, and thus makes up more than 10% of the Dewar's blend. But Aberfeldy single malt is also pretty hard to find because there's a big market for Dewar's, the number-one selling blended Scotch in the US.

Aberfeldy has a very honeyed character, with some heather as well. You can smell it and imagine an idealized Scottish countryside in summer, with neither Mel Gibson nor Rent Boy anywhere in the frame. Buy it here.

I'd love to tell you what percentage of Johnnie Walker Black comes from Cardhu. But Diageo, the largest producer of single malts in Scotland, wouldn't tell me. There are more than 40 single malts in JWB, so Cardhu can't make up a huge percentage of it. But I taste it in the blend.

It's not hard, because Cardhu has as strong of a pear character as any single-malt I've tried; it could almost be pear brandy. There's also some toasted cereal and black pepper. But here are my notes on it, and remember I live in San Francisco and had been drinking Scotch: "So much pear, so fruity and lively -- a slight bit peppery, but not peaty. This is an exuberant whisky, a gay whisky."

Yeah, I'll stick with that. Let's face it, the guys who make it wear skirts kilts. Buy it from one of my favorite San Francisco spirits shops.

So those are my three tips on cool single malts, with a separate type of tip of the cap to Wine Review Online, which just celebrated its 5th anniversary! I'm going to drink publisher Robert Whitley and editor Michael Franz a toast of a nice gay sophisticated whisky. May ye never want for a friend, or for a dram to give him.