Thursday, September 30, 2010

Freeloading from Robert Mondavi Winery

Robert Mondavi was a great promoter, an ambitious guy who financed expensive art-food-and-wine events.

After going to a $98 prix fixe restaurant on Constellation Brands' dime Tuesday, and leaving with a test tube full of dirt, I can say that the corporation is trying to uphold Mondavi's PR legacy.

The event was billed as "A Taste of Place," and it was essentially a launch party for Robert Mondavi Winery Napa Valley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2007.

At least, that's what I think the wine is called; I never actually saw the bottle. In fact, I wasn't going to blog about the event at all, because I only got about 210 seconds to chat with Mondavi Director of Winemaking Genevieve Janssens (right). And the tasting conditions sucked and I don't know for sure what I was drinking and I really can't say anything definitive about the wines based on the very expensive event.

But I was describing the event to another PR person today who was laughing hysterically -- and wishing she had Constellation's budget -- so I figured, what the heck, I'll share it with my readers. I can't be potentially setting new first-amendment precedent every day, you know.

So here's the deal. Outdoors at Saison restaurant (normal menu price, $98; not one Mondavi wine on the list), there were three booths. We were told to do the activities in order.

At the first booth, two severe-looking older women mixed two kinds of farm dirt with water in wine glasses into a frothy mud, which we were invited to nose like wine. It smelled like mud. I know there are variations of mud, and both of these were distinctive; one was loamier. But still, mud.

We tasted a snap pea grown in one type of mud, and cheese from sheep that grazed on grass grown in the other. The women told us that we should taste the connection between the pea and the mud, and between the cheese and the mud.

I tried, really I did. I smelled the mud, then bit the pea. Then I chewed on the pea while sniffing the mud. Ditto the cheese. Some of the other writers* said, "Yes, I get it!"

(*Who were these other writers? I'll get to that.)

I announced my atheism on this issue: I tasted no relationship, and I said so. The women frowned at me and I took a slight step backward, also backpedaling verbally. I apologized that if perhaps we could do a horizontal snap pea tasting alongside the different muds, that would really teach me something.

And it might -- about mud and snap peas. I didn't add that. One woman's frown finally softened and I sheepishly backed away.

On to the next booth: we tasted recently dried To Kalon Cabernet grapes while smelling To Kalon dirt. I suppose it's an attempt at conditioning -- taste To Kalon Cab, imagine the smell of dirt. But it didn't have an immediate effect. I washed out the flavor of tannic dried grape by grabbing a spoonful of American sturgeon caviar from a passing waiter.

Then I moved on to the last booth, where the winemaker Janssens was animatedly explaining the different vineyard blocks at To Kalon. This was quite interesting to me and was why I came, but I couldn't really hear her and non-wine writers had questions I wasn't interested in, so I didn't linger.

Now about those other writers: You can't get the A-list to come to events with other wine writers. I've never rubbed elbows with Robert Parker or a Wine Advocate writer. Only occasionally do I run into a Wine Spectator writer at a wine event, and never one of their top-billed people. Steve Heimoff is about the biggest name you see at these things in San Francisco, and he was there. So were a few of my other colleagues in wine writing.

But I also ran into a local music critic, though there was no music. There were a few food bloggers I had met and some I hadn't. The way wine PR works, you have to fill out an invite list, and at a certain point it doesn't matter if the person doesn't know cabernet from cabaret; you can tell your client he works at a local publication, and that's good enough.

One could also argue that this is the kind of broad-brush PR that Robert Mondavi did. If somebody writes about architecture, but they're inclined favorably toward your brand, perhaps they'll slip in a mention.

The down side is, if you're serious about reviewing wine, these events aren't so useful. I'll be curious to see what Steve writes. I know I tasted an absolutely great Sauvignon Blanc that had a label I didn't recognize. Somebody told me it was "the I block," or maybe "the eye block"; I didn't get to hold the bottle in my hands, and I don't know the vintage. I really liked it but Robert Mondavi Winery spent thousands of dollars in part to get me, a guy who writes about wine, to an event with a wine I really liked, yet I don't know what it was.

Don't misunderstand all this snark. My life is great, and events like this are a big reason. I had a $98 meal, and it was good, particularly the Sonoma lamb roasted with vadovan spices. That was served with the new release Cab and a 1996 Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon which the sommelier decanted into lab beakers; very cool. Not many of the music and lifestyle writers were interested in this older wine so I had a bunch of it, so much that my yuzu ice cream melted and I had to keep shooing away waiters from whisking it away. I had so much that I don't remember how much I had. Whoever made the Reserve Cab at Robert Mondavi in 1996, that was some good winemaking.

Was it Janssens? I don't know, I wasted my 210 precious seconds asking her about dirt, not her resume. Silly me.

Here's what I did learn:
* The Mondavi portion of To Kalon vineyard has seven different types of dirt, while she said Andy Beckstoffer's portion has only one. "That's how we get diversity and complexity," Janssens said.
* To Kalon is great because it's well-drained. It's on a 5% slope toward the river. "The roots go very deep to get their nutrients," Janssens said.
* Merlot and Malbec don't do well on To Kalon because it's too dry for them. This is Cabernet Sauvignon country. Sauvignon Blanc might be even better, but Constellation has torn out some great old blocks of it because Cabernet generates more income. Sigh. (but who can blame them?)
* Janssens, who is French, believes To Kalon is the equivalent of a first-growth Bordeaux vineyard because "every year, no matter how the weather is, you have great wine. To me, that's a first growth."

Time's up!

We left with a tubeful of dirt from To Kalon vineyard. I'm just about to dig into, believe it or not, some snap peas from my local Chinese delivery place. Perhaps I'll open it and see if I can smell a connection.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Attention readers: Charles Smith may be suing you

Last week I received notice from Google that K Vintners and its winemaker Charles Smith are suing some people who commented anonymously on my site.

I am not named as a party in the lawsuit. But if you are one of my readers, you might be.

This post is a courtesy to you. Google received a subpoena demanding that it provide the Internet protocol addresses of the people who made the comments.

Google Legal Support wrote to me, "To comply with the law, unless you provide us with a copy of a filed motion to quash the subpoena (or other formal objection filed in court) via email at no later than 5pm Pacific Time on October 11, 2010, Google may provide responsive documents on this date."

I cannot provide legal advice. If you are one of the commenters in question, you may want to consult an attorney.

For obvious reasons I am restraining myself at this time from comment on this case -- which isn't easy, because it's interesting. I will say that because of the way Blogger works, I do not know the identity of the commenters, and because of this I do not want to.

The lawsuit is public record, so I am posting the other four pages below; sorry, that's as big as I can figure out how to make them. Here is the original post and the comments in question. Because of the lawsuit comments on that post will no longer be published. Comment on this post at your own risk.

Monday, September 27, 2010

An open letter about Wine Spectator

A few weeks ago I posted An Open Letter to Marvin Shanken, in which I made a suggestion I won’t repeat here, because I said my piece.

Moreover, I now have a better idea, courtesy of a winery executive I won't name to protect him from Wine Spectator's wrath.

We dined together on the night Wine Spectator published its response to my post, a well-written Matt Kramer column that cleverly shifted the focus of my argument.

I expressed my admiration for Kramer’s piece the way a chess loser respects an opponents‘ brilliant move, and regretted that I had not more carefully made my point. But the exec pointed out that I had missed a greater opportunity.

I had, for a moment, the attention of Wine Spectator, and could have used it to make a greater point about its system of reviewing wines.

That point is this: Why does Wine Spectator rely on a single person’s palate for its reviews in the first place?

I understand why Robert Parker and his Wine Advocate do this. People come to the Wine Advocate seeking Parker’s personal decisions. Whether or not you agree with his preferences, Parker has one of the most consistent and accurate palates in the world. His whole business is built on the idea of the single taster.

Wine Spectator, on the other hand, is a much broader magazine, and I will restate that I think it is the finest of all American wine magazines. Unlike the Advocate, Wine Spectator covers wine news, has done groundbreaking investigative reporting (such as James Laube exposing TCA-infected cellars), and has published many articles explaining aspects of wine. It is, unlike the Advocate, not a place where people come to read one person’s opinion. People read it not for the Matt Kramer brand or the Thomas Matthews brand, but for the Wine Spectator brand.

And yet, Wine Spectator insists on having one taster responsible for its ratings: one man does California, another does Spain, etc.

Wine Spectator has a deep roster of fine tasters who would make a great panel. Why not do this?

Tasting panels are how practically every winery in the world works. I’ve had the honor of sitting with some of California’s greatest winemakers when they taste samples and prepare blends. And part of what makes them great is that they encourage their colleagues and subordinates to express their opinions.

As the exec pointed out, what if the winemaker is having a bad day? What if she has a cold? Or what if she just won the lottery and is in a superb mood? No matter how good a taster one person is, no large winery would ever put its money on the palate of a single taster. And no good small winery that I know of is run by a winemaker who doesn’t taste with others, if nothing else just to confirm his impressions.

Parker’s one-man, one-palate system is the outlier; it’s unnatural. And yet, Parker is such a great taster that he’s successful with it. In my original post, I suggested that the Advocate will have difficulty maintaining its prestige when he steps down, despite his steps to bring along successors.

Should Wine Spectator be basing its future success on the single-taster system?

The exec pointed out that in Europe, wineries deliberately put together multi-generational tasting panels for several reasons. Foremost is the inherent risk of a single taster being distracted or just having a bad day. But family wineries need to train the next generation of tasters. They need their 25-year-olds to taste with their 65-year-olds so that the latter can use their experience to inform their successors about how certain characteristics of a young wine might give it more long-term potential.

Why wouldn’t this apply to Wine Spectator as well? When its current first generation of tasters retires, wouldn’t the magazine be better off if their successors had been tasting with them for two decades?

Moreover, though Wine Spectator makes no secret of its reliance on the single-taster system, I suspect that if they took a reader poll, they would learn that most of their own readers think a Wine Spectator rating represents the magazine’s opinion, not one man’s.

In fact, that’s a potential marketable advantage for Wine Spectator that the magazine is not using. I can see the campaign now: “Who do you trust: One man, or our panel of the world’s most respected, experienced tasters?”

As I said in my previous post, it is because of my respect for Wine Spectator, and my belief in its importance, that I would like to see it make positive changes. I still think my initial suggestion was a good idea, but this is a better one. Going from a single-taster system to a tasting panel would be a great move. I hope Marvin Shanken will consider it.

However, somebody else is going to have to make the argument to him. I had my shot -- I had his attention. And I blew it.


It pains me to write this next part, but I think I must.

I did not believe anyone could interpret my original post as a job application. But apparently some did, and Matt Kramer referred to it as such.

I apologize for the extreme arrogance of the paragraph to come. Wine Spectator can have its choice of most of America’s finest wine writers, critics and reporters. There’s no reason for me to believe I would be one of the first 100 people they would consider for a job opening. Nor do I believe I’m the most qualified person for a job there; geez, I’m not that arrogant. But I want to set the record straight, so I will make the following statement as clear as possible:

I will not work for Wine Spectator. If offered a job, I will decline.

Sigh. Now what am I going to do with the rest of my life?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Big House wines: Better after leaving Bonny Doon

Nobody likes to go on stage after a popular comedian. That's also true in the wine world.

Georgetta Dane has never met Randall Grahm, but she meets his fans all the time. They're not aware that Grahm sold the Big House brand to the Wine Group in 2006, so when they learn she's the Big House winemaker now, they're disappointed.

Some of Grahm's biggest supporters are wine writers who loved his knack for putting whimsy and romance into wines made from purchased grapes.

"It's hard for me to be accepted by them," Dane says.

Dane, a tall, confident food scientist from Romania, isn't likely to pen amusing back-label notes or a lengthy parody of Dante's The Divine Comedy. But her background is more interesting than Grahm, who went to UC Davis and has spent his whole career in the US. And she is no less outspoken.

"Wine is easy to make," Dane says. "There's a lot of good technology. I studied sugar and my husband studied oil. Those are hard to make; they have awful technology. For me to learn wine was a piece of cake. Wine makes itself; winemakers take credit for it."

But don't think she doesn't see the romance of wine. After Dane graduated from University of GalaĊ£i in 1993 with a master's degree in food science, she had a choice of two jobs: at a large industrial winery, or a sausage factory. "I thought, there's no romance in sausage," she said. So she made huge quantities of ordinary table wine for two years.

"It was one of those big Communist wineries," she said. "Their wines all tasted the same."

Monday, September 20, 2010

My day on Wine & Spirits' tasting panel

So far I've only sat on Wine & Spirits magazine's tasting panel once, and maybe by blogging about it I won't be invited back. But I found their procedure interesting so I'm going to describe it.

Joshua Greene, editor and publisher, invited me to sit in on a winnowing panel for California wines that the magazine received only one bottle of, instead of the two they requested. Publications like to ask for two bottles not only in case one is corked, but also so they can take notes at two different times. On these wines, Greene -- who wrote the article about them -- had only one shot.

What Wine & Spirits does is convene a panel of 5 professional tasters, in this case Greene and another W&S employee along with me, a wine buyer and a sommelier. We tasted blind; Greene hires a guy (apparently a restaurant waiter) for a couple hours to come in and pour the glasses. If a wine got three votes, it made the magazine -- even if Greene didn't like it.

In a few cases, when he was one of only two people who liked a wine, he cajoled us until he got a third vote. But generally I was surprised by how little power he exercised, though I wasn't there when he wrote the reviews.

Most US wine publications use the one-taster system. James Laube decides on which California Chardonnays he likes, and those are the ones Wine Spectator recommends. Greene was surprisingly open to others' choices. This is the system we used at the San Francisco Chronicle when I was there, and I like it. Wine is so subjective; on 10 of the 33 wines I disagreed with the group's decision. Was I wrong, or were the other 4 tasters? The answer is neither.

However, the point scores are all Greene's decision. We could outvote him to get a wine on the list, but we couldn't make him give it 93 points.

22 of the 33 wines were expensive Chardonnays, with an average price of $43.

How many $43 Chardonnays, out of 22, would you expect a panel to consider good enough to recommend?

We chose 7; I think that's low, considering the price. There also wasn't one Chardonnay that we all agreed was fantastic (though Hanzell Sonoma Valley Chardonnay 2007 came closest).

Was that because we didn't have top quality brands to taste? No -- we had wines from Au Bon Climat, Lioco, Nickel & Nickel, Ramey, Rochioli, Stony Hill, Williams Selyem and others.

It wasn't the region -- we had 11 appellations -- or style either. Only a couple of wines were awful in the mid-'90s buttery style (if you like that, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars made one like buttered popcorn).

My conclusion isn't a new one: pricey California Chardonnay is a "crapshoot," with still enough good wines to merit that second syllable.

Another observation: I think I'm a fan of "natural wines," made from indigenous yeast with low-impact winemaking, because they tend to have more complexity. But in a blind tasting, they showed poorly. I thought an Arnot-Roberts Chardonnay tasted like lemon-cherry lipstick (on the plus side, it did bring back the thrill of kissing when I was 17).

One Lioco Chardonnay was too funky for me; had I known what it was, I might have tried harder to get past the aroma. Does that show the strength of blind tasting, or its weakness? I'm not sure. In a real-life situation, I might have ordered the Lioco, a brand I admire, and spent the whole glass or bottle debating its merits. It might have evolved in the glass. However, I would also have run into the psychological power of brand expectation, which would have caused me to like it more than it deserves.

Josh published the notes for his favorites in the magazine, and I won't repeat them here (Buy a magazine! Wine print publications need the support.) But my favorites were:

Hanzell Sonoma Valley Chardonnay 2007 ($70): I hate it when the most expensive wine is my favorite, but that's the case here. Lemon fruit so bright that it has something of a Pez quality, but pretty floral notes remind you why you're here. Would be great with white-flesh fish, or just sitting on the porch in twilight.

Varner Bee Block Spring Ridge Vineyard Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay 2008 ($39): Delightful nose that's like a toasty lemon creme brulee. Good toast and lemon flavors, though very slightly hot on the finish.

At the end of the tasting, there were 33 half-full bottles of wine sitting around -- expensive, famous wines. Josh offered me my choice of the Chardonnays that I had liked which the group hadn't; this included a Williams Selyem and a Ramey. But I passed, and nobody else took home a bottle either. Lots of $50 Chardonnay went down the drain that day.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Should a convicted felon get in the Vintners Hall of Fame?

Before voting ends for the Vintners Hall of Fame on Friday, I'd like to put on my hat as Chairman of the Electoral College to address an issue some have asked about.

Fred Franzia is on this year's ballot because, in my opinion, he has done more this decade to put wine on the dinner table of low-income people than anyone else. Plenty of teachers and social workers and NGO employees who might have had Pabst Blue Ribbon with dinner, or maybe water, instead enjoyed a civilized glass or two of Two Buck Chuck.

By selling Charles Shaw wines at $2 a bottle ($3 outside California), Franzia has taken over his uncle Ernest Gallo's mantle as the guy who reaches out to non-wine drinkers to convert them. And Two Buck Chuck is a gateway drug -- today's 23-year-old Charles Shaw drinker might be the next decade's single-vineyard Mourvedre enthusiast.

But Franzia has an obvious black mark on his candidacy. In 1994 he pled guilty to federal charges of conspiracy to defraud. Prosecutors said Franzia and his Bronco Wine Co. labeled cheap grapes worth $100 to $200 per ton as Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, sprinkling a few Zin leaves on top to make the loads look more authentic. Bronco pleaded no contest to misrepresenting 5,000 tons of grapes and 1 million gallons of wine. Bronco paid a $2.5 million fine; Franzia personally paid a $500,000 fine. He didn't do any jail time, in part because prosecutors believed Bronco might go out of business without him, costing innocent employees their jobs.

Franzia also conducted a 6-year legal battle with Napa Valley Vintners and the state of California over the misleading use of place names. He bought three defunct brand names -- Napa Creek, Napa Ridge and Rutherford Vintners -- and bottled wines from elsewhere in the state using those names. He finally lost, and I'm glad he lost. He was attempting to make Central Valley wines more appealing to consumers by confusing them with the Napa and Rutherford names, and that's both dishonest and not good for wine.

So how should we weigh his positives and negatives? Franzia is the biggest populist in the wine industry. He frequently complains that the wine establishment charges too much for its products, and with his own pricing he backs up this belief. He has sold more than 400 million bottles of Charles Shaw. If it sold for $2.50 instead of $2, and he got an extra 10 cents on each bottle, that would be $40 million more for Bronco. But he has held the line on the price -- instead leaving an extra $200 million in the pockets of his customers.

And yet, his federal conviction strikes at the heart of what wine lovers believe. We can't tell from looking at a bottle whether the contents are really Zinfandel; in many cases we can't really tell after tasting it, as many wine experts have discovered in blind tastings. We have to trust the winery and trust the label. I'm glad the feds caught him and punished him, because that helps maintain that trust.

But still -- was that a knockout offense for the Vintners Hall of Fame? He's on this year's ballot, so obviously the Nominating Committee doesn't think so.

I want to know what you think. Post it in the comments.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Trying to survive on the grapes of Wrath

In Napa Valley there's a term, "lucky sperm," for somebody who inherits a great vineyard or winery.

What does that make Michael Thomas? He didn't quite inherit: he took over a Monterey County winery, Wrath, and San Saba Vineyard when his 82-year-old stepfather didn't want to run it anymore.

He didn't like the wines; his stepfather ill-advisedly planted too much Cabernet. He likes the terroir, but his stepfather also short-sightedly prevented the estate vineyard from being part of a more prestigious appellation.

"We've got 20 feet of asphalt separating us from Santa Lucia Highlands," Thomas said. "The reason we're not in (the appellation) is because my stepfather managed to piss everybody off."

Thomas, 43, took over in 2007, just as the market for $40 wines went south. He lives in New York and works at University of Texas as a teacher and in Italy as an archeologist, so Monterey is a little out of the way.

But he did get a winery and vineyard. So is he lucky?

"It pretty much killed my archeology career," Thomas said, though he's still working on an Etruscan estate northeast of Florence that he's been excavating for 15 years.

Thomas, who looks like Jason Giambi, has taken on a big task for a guy who's not here often.

He's trying to mend fences with his neighbors. With the help of Byron Kosuge, he's trying to make better wine. And he's trying to find a market in a year when full-time farmers are also working the phones, looking for a home for their grapes.

"We were selling fruit for $2800 a ton. This year we'll be lucky to get $1200 a ton," Thomas said. "We were selling fruit until this year. This year we made bulk wine because we couldn't sell the grapes. I've got some beautiful Chardonnay in bulk right now and I hope I'm going to be able to sell it."

He's also lobbying his wife to move to Monterey, but "my wife is pushing to move to Texas."

I'll be brutally frank: I don't see how he's going to make it. And the shame about that is that as an archeologist -- somebody who thinks a lot about different layers of soil -- and an Italian wine drinker, he's the right guy to understand his estate vineyard and wring the most potential from it.

And he uses some interesting names. A "destruction level" is a black carbon layer that was a settlement. "It has a smokey quality to it," he says.

The Wrath "Destruction Level" Monterey Sauvignon Blanc 2008 ($29; Gray Market Report 89 points) has a full, round mouthfeel, but is not too big and is just 13.2% alcohol. I like the exotic pineapple, lemon grass and escarole flavors. This wine has seen 30% new oak and gets some of its richness from the unusual inclusion of 3% Chardonnay. It's all estate fruit, but Thomas (foolishly?) doesn't say that on the label.

The reason? It's a contrast to the unadorned version of essentially the same wine, the Wrath San Saba Vineyard Monterey Sauvignon Blanc 2008 ($23; Gray Market Report 90 points). Made in 100% stainless steel, this wine also has the same pineapple skin, lemon grass and escarole character, but with a leaner mouthfeel and slightly lower alcohol (12.7%). Call me a purist or a cheapskate, but I preferred this version.

"Fermata" means stop. Wrath "Fermata" Monterey Chardonnay 2008 ($40; Gray Market Report 89 points) gets the name because he stopped malolactic fermentation, leaving the wine toasty, lemon and intense, but not woody. It's rich but still keeps its acidity; this is what good Santa Lucia Highlands Chardonnay tastes like -- even though it's from across the street.

"A lot of our Chardonnay is on own-rooted 30-year-old vines," Thomas said.

I also liked his Wrath Doctor's Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands Syrah 2007 ($50; Gray Market Report 90 points) from purchased fruit; it's very savory and Rhonish, with notes of smoked beef, pepper, black plum, raspberry and earth. He made only 70 cases, a good thing at a bad time for $50 Syrahs.

Thomas is a realist about his chances.

"Australia is selling Chardonnay at pennies on the dollar," he said. "That affects the whole industry worldwide. I think Northern California will be the last place to recover."

At least he has two good day jobs. And as the Duke graduate says, "my sports teams are the most hated teams in sports -- the Cowboys, the Yankees, Duke basketball." So I guess he's the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Can a ginjo sake earn 100 points?

Though weary of debates about the 100-point scale, I discovered an interesting philosophical point after drinking about 60 sakes last week.

For wine-review geeks, an ongoing debate about ratings of any kind is this: Should ratings be absolute, in which all wines are measured against all other wines? Or should they be relative, in which case the best Beaujolais -- or the best White Zinfandel -- in the world should get 100 points?

It's an interesting debate to apply to sake because daiginjos are, literally, more refined than other sakes. So should the world's best nigori sake (the sake equivalent of White Zinfandel) rate 100 points, even if it's not as good as a good daiginjo?

It's something worth arguing about over a long sake-drenched dinner with other beverage geeks. But the ginjo sakes below were all rated on an absolute scale under the tasting conditions you see above at this year's Joy of Sake (That's Vinography's Alder Yarrow in the white shirt with the black strap, trying to taste all 187 sakes.)

Joy of Sake is maddening because it's the only big sake-tasting event of the year in San Francisco, so whatever I choose to taste means ignoring everything else, possibly until next fall.

The most popular are the most expensive -- the daiginjos. I have elbowed my way across those tables in previous years. But this year I decided to stick to the more affordable, literally less refined ginjo sakes for two reasons:

* They're what I'm most likely to order, both for value and because junmai ginjos tend to be the most wine-like of sakes

* The crowd was all at the daiginjos. I like tasting without a crowd.

Understand that ginjo sakes are not cheap or unrefined. At least 40% of the outside of the rice must be polished away, thus eliminating impurities -- but whenever you throw away 40% of the raw material, you're making a premium product. Daiginjo (literally, "big ginjo") must have 50% polished away. I'm not going to knock daiginjos; these are some of the best sakes in the world. But many times I like the ginjos better.

So here are my favorites from 52 tasted, along with (the prefecture in parentheses), ratings on the absolute 100-point scale, and a few hastily scribbled tasting notes.

And to answer my own question -- yes, I think a ginjo sake could earn 100 points, because I have had some that I thought were among the very best sakes I've ever had. But I just wasn't feeling that generous last week.

A 100-point White Zinfandel, though, mmm, I don't think so. Though I'd like to see somebody prove me wrong.

Fukuchitose "Toku" (Fukui) 97 Very aromatic with nectarine and sea salt and floral notes. Almost achingly salty on the finish; cries out for sashimi

Yuki no Bosha "Hiden Yamahai" (Akita) 94 Very smooth, with peaches and cream character

Manabito Kimoto Junmai Ginjo (Akita) 93 Initially salty, then turns creamy on the smooth finish

Tenju Junmai Ginjo (Akita) 93 Clementine, peach, lime and cream. Very wine-like; a great substitute for Riesling.

Hamachidori "Ginginashikomi" Junmai Ginjo (Iwate) 93 Aromatic, with floral notes and white peach. Good acidity.

Kaika "Kurobin" Junmai Ginjo (Tochigi) 92 Green apple and coriander

Nabeshima Junmai Ginjo (Saga) 92 Complex, with cedar, mild citrus and cream

Imayotsukasa "Meikai" (Niigata) 92 Clean profile with nice cream and peach flavors

Yuki no Bosha Junmai Ginjo (Akita) 91 Intense, comes at you in layers. Very long finish

Manotsuru Junmai Ginjo (Niigata) 91 Very creamy, slightly sweet, long finish

Yuki no Bosha Yamahai Junmai (Akita) 91 Complex, intense, fruit and floral notes. Slightly hot on long finish.

Toko "Dewanosato" Junmai Ginjo Genshu (Yamagata) 91 Creamy, spreads on the palate, long finish

Okunomatsu "Sakura Ginjo" (Fukushima) 91 Intense peach and lime flavors

Dewazakura "Dewasansan" Junmai Ginjo (Yamagata) 91 Green apple, clean and refreshing

"Yuga" Junmai Ginjo (Chiba) 90 Sweet, creamy, white chocolate, long finish

Shutendoji "Oni" (Kyoto) 90 Slightly sweet, Alpha-Bits, long finish

Okunomatsu "Adatara Ginjo" (Fukushima) 90 Slightly herbal with nice white peach flavor

Mizubasho Ginjoshu (Gunma) 90 Creamy and gentle

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

An open letter to Marvin Shanken

Dear Marvin:

I'm a longtime reader of Wine Spectator. I respect your magazine, which is overall the best wine magazine in the USA.

I know you're making some lineup changes. I'm writing to suggest one more.

Earlier this summer, James Suckling resigned and you announced that tastings of European wines will be done in New York. You said you are fortunate to have significant depth in your editorial team.

It's time to take advantage of that depth and put somebody new in charge of tasting California wines.

James Laube, 58, has been writing for Wine Spectator for 30 years, and has been responsible for most of your reviews of California wine since 1983.

He is already beginning to lose his taste acuity. This is a fact of nature that no one can avoid, and the process will only accelerate once he hits age 60.

You're going to have to make a move in the next few years. I suggest that you make it sooner, for the following reasons.

1) Robert Parker recently turned 63. Despite your magazine's greater breadth of coverage, Parker has been more influential. But he's gradually reducing his tasting responsibilities for The Wine Advocate, as he should, and the Advocate's personnel depth isn't as great as yours. The position of "most influential" is up for grabs once he steps down. As you are an American magazine, you need to have a respected critic in place for America's largest and most important wine-producing state to take full advantage of the competitive opportunity.

2) Everyone is entitled to their own palate. Laube loves blockbuster red wines -- it doesn't matter what grape they're made from, as long as they're big -- and nobody can say that's he's wrong; it's just his opinion. But he has fallen out of touch with American wine aficionados, and increasingly with a more experienced general public. And while Laube's palate is similar to Parker's, there's a huge difference in respect. Parker has a legion of followers. As for your man?

The following is a strong statement, but I invite you to look into the truth of it:
Nobody who knows wine respects James Laube's ratings.
I know you've been hearing sycophantic praise for years from PR people and wineries, but this is the reality. Don't take my word for it -- get one of your interns to make some anonymous phone calls to wine buyers, sommeliers and other gatekeepers.

This means that your ratings of California wines are only useful for beginners. Is that your intended audience? And what happens to those readers once they've learned a little more?

3) You are at the time in your career when you must be thinking about your legacy. You have done a great job of glamorizing wine while also making it more accessible to the public. You have also contributed a great deal to charity over the years.

But what is your legacy in the way wine is made? It's up in the air.

People blame Parker, not your magazine, for overblown wines, for several reasons. He has more influence, and he applies his palate to wine throughout the world. Laube is only one of your critics. Your other critics do not all share his palate.

You can make a legacy statement now for the future of wine. You can choose a new California wine critic who prefers balanced wines, and you can take the opportunity to state that this is Wine Spectator's mission. Such a move might be as influential on wine as anything you have yet done in your entire illustrious career.

I'm not suggesting that you hire an outsider. Nor am I suggesting that you hire a New World-bashing zealot. These writers belong in the relatively small role that they have now, not the powerful chair of Wine Spectator's California critic.

What you need is a critic who likes the taste of fruit in their wine, yet does not believe that more is always better. You need a critic who can tell the difference between a fruit-forward Cabernet Sauvignon that will taste good halfway through the bottle, and a low-acid parody that would weary the palate if he/she actually drank a glass, rather than sipped and spit.

This is a move you have to make anyway within, at most, 7 years. Why wait? Keep Laube's column and let him write features. He's still a good reporter, as evidenced by his interesting profile of Helen Turley.

But he is not a good enough taster to be the most important taster on your magazine -- not if you want your magazine to take over from the Wine Advocate and become the unquestioned opinion leader of the wine industry.

I know from personal experience that Wine Spectator is defensive in the face of outside criticism. But I believe your editors know I keep a balanced, respectful view of your magazine. This open letter is not meant as a rant. It is a serious suggestion, and I hope you will accept it as such.

W. Blake Gray

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Seducing truckers: the secret to winemaking success

When I was a young genius I was irritated by teachers who wanted me to cure cancer or fly to Mars, so whenever I was asked, "What do you want to be?" I would answer, "a truck driver."

Millions of dead brain cells later, I have been unable to realize this childhood dream. And now winemaker Amy Aiken of Meander and Conspire Wines arrives to tell me that I could have been the center of love and attention every harvest season in Northern California.

Aiken is just one of more than 450 winemakers in Napa Valley who all want their grapes harvested and delivered in the early morning. Big companies like Constellation and Kendall-Jackson might have their own trucks, but all those little guys whose wines you love are competing to get on the crowded schedule of a limited number of trucks.

This is a real-life winemaking situation I simply never thought about. I can't tell you how many times I've talked to somebody making Syrah from Mendocino County and Chardonnay from Carneros and a little Grenache from Lodi, all due about the same time, but never considered the logistics.

"I have four truckers on my speed dial," Aiken says. "Sometimes you get a call from someone who has a good Pinot Noir in Russian River (Valley). The grower can't take the last two tons. He'll say, 'you'll have to show up tomorrow'."

And it's not good enough to just get on the schedule, not if the workers are harvesting on a hot day, which they usually are, given California's fall weather.

"You really want to be the first pick in the morning," Aiken says. "You want to be first on the truck so you can be in the tank by the end of the day. Everything stays cold."

Aiken is a get-it-done type with a master's degree in plant pathology -- plant diseases. She moved from her native Milwaukee to California to work in the seed industry, but at UC Davis she fell in love with Joel Aiken, the winemaker at BV for more than 25 years. When he moved to Napa, she went with him.

They weren't married, and she wanted a job, so she interviewed with Craig Williams at Joseph Phelps Vineyards.

"He asked all these tough questions. The interview went on forever," she said. "I finally said, 'I need a job. I'm here with my boyfriend.' He said, 'Who's your boyfriend?' I said, 'Joel Aiken.' He said, 'Of course you're hired.' I was madder than a cat. I had worked hard to get a master's degree in a male-dominated field and I got the job because of who my boyfriend was."

But Amy has never worked with Joel; they taste together, but she visibly bristles at the suggestion that he might tell her how to make her wine. They're married with two kids now, but she's defiantly her own woman, with her own labels, Meander and Conspire.

So how does she seduce those truckers? "There's a bottle of wine in it for them at the end of the day," she says. If I ever do get that commercial vehicle license, I'm going to hold out for the Cabernet.

Conspire Rutherford Sauvignon Blanc 2009 ($28): Mild grapefruit flavor with a spreading mouthfeel from the sur lie treatment. It's pretty straightforward, but that one note is a nice one. 90

Meander Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($65): Dark cherry fruit with good acidity and some slate minerality on the finish. Very smooth tannins but they're present; the wine's not flabby at all. Nice aromatic notes of blackberry, coffee and dried sage. 91

You can order them here, unless you're a trucker, in which case you should just pick up some grapes for her.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Great mother-daughter winemaking team

Yesterday I had this story in the Los Angeles Times about Verdejo-based wines from Rueda, Spain. With other LA Times stories I have posted tasting notes and wine recommendations on this blog that didn't make the newspaper. But this time, I fit 5 recommendations in the story, and that's really enough.

So here's a blog extra: a little more info about the mother-daughter team behind my favorite Rueda winery, Jose Pariente.

Victoria Pariente, who named the winery after her father, brought her 24-year-old daughter Martina into the business a few years ago, about the time that she split off from her former partner in Dos Victorias, Victoria Benavides.

"I remember the first day I worked in the winery because we had to taste 70 barrels," Martina said. "After I tasted the 70 barrels, I don’t remember more."

"You almost collapsed," Victoria said.

Martina recovered well enough to not only learn from her mother, but to develop her own style. She must have inherited the confidence and independence of a woman, her mother, who decided she could leave a comfortable government job at the laboratory that oversaw regional wine production to start her own winemaking business.

But Victoria has the technical chops; she has a degree in oenology and chemistry from University of Madrid, and spent 10 years at the lab. Martina also plans to study winemaking in Madrid.

"My intention is to follow my mother's work. I want to learn from her, not do something completely different," Martina says.

At the moment, though, Martina is doing just that. She's making 8000 bottles of Martina Rueda Verdejo, all exported to the US. Her English skills are far better than her mother's and she has already successfully done a tasting tour here.

It was fascinating to compare their wines with them present. Martina's wine is more intense and has a slight sweetness that her mother eschews. Victoria's wine is my favorite in Rueda because of its delicious balance and elegance, with not a note out of place.

In short, you have an exuberant young winemaker's wine and a more mature offering (sorry Victoria, I know you're still young too ...)

Victoria can give way more technical details on the making of her wine than anyone but a fellow winemaker would want to hear. Martina is more vague and secretive -- a better marketer already.

"It's not a project for my mother," Martina said. "It's my project. But I don't want to fight with her."

Maybe I wanted to see that happen, because I asked Victoria what she thought of Martina's wine. She dodged it, but not all that skillfully. I followed up by asking what she would think of Martina's more intense style when her daughter eventually takes over Jose Pariente.

"When she takes over, she can do whatever she wants," Victoria said.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Sake's annual big night

I've been warned by the organizer that Joy of Sake -- San Francisco's only major sake-tasting event -- might sell out this year. The Joy is next Thursday (Sept. 9), so the time to buy a ticket is now.

(To my readers in New York: your event is Sept. 23, and I don't think it will sell out.)

The good news is that attendance in San Francisco has been limited this year to 350 people, which should make the event much more comfortable.

There are always big positives and negatives to Joy of Sake. It could be better organized and more informative. They should have spit buckets and more easily accessed water pitchers. In my dreams you would be able to order sakes right there, but in fact you'll probably walk out with nothing more than a nice buzz, some tasting notes that you puzzled over (whipped cream? white chocolate? peach fuzz?) and, if you get there early, a belly full of tuna.

On the bright side, the sake selection is superb, including many great sakes you can't buy outside of Japan. While the Honolulu and New York events have larger selections, you have to be Alder Yarrow to even consider racing through 178 sakes in 3 hours. I'll taste about 40-50 and be delighted to have the chance. And I'll be sure to taste the 12 sakes that were judged highest at the 10th U.S. Sake Appraisal* (list below).

You can pour the sakes yourself. I love that. I get tired of standing around waiting at Family Winemakers, et al, for the sales rep to stop chatting about the weather in Indiana with some other visitor and pour me that next Zinfandel. Here, you can taste at your own pace.

And let's go back to that "only major sake-tasting event in San Francisco" bit, shall we? You can blow off any of the great wine tastings the Bay Area has to offer, but if you skip Yoshi's Sake Soiree next week, you'll have to wait another year for a similar chance.

So my recommendation, in sum, is this: Buy a ticket (online, here, after you finish reading me of course). Get there early. Stand around outside with me and Alder; we'll be the ones grumbling because there's no trade/media portion. Silently exult that we can't pull privilege as we do at every other tasting.

Grab some food immediately -- the food lasted last year until late in the event, but that hasn't always been the case. Very few of the sakes will run out, but popular food items might not last an hour.

Then, start tasting some sakes. The daiginjo table is always crowded because those are expensive, but they're not my favorite as a class and might not be yours either. Junmais tend to be fuller-bodied and earthier; junmai ginjos are the most wine-like. Taste a few of each, and taste more bottles near the ones you like.

I bring my own paper cup and spit in it. Sake may taste creamy and delicate but it's higher in alcohol than wine; generally 16 to 18%. If you plan to swallow, make transportation plans.

After your first 10 sakes you can look around the room and nitpick the event like I have. Wouldn't it be better if more sake experts worked the room? If the sakes were grouped by region? If there was ordering information? Now you're a Sake Soiree veteran.

Now about those 12 highest-judged sakes: I'm not a big fan of official sake judgings because I don't buy into the standards. Unlike wine, which is generally judged positively for its good characteristics, sake is judged negatively for its flaws. This means a clean, simple sake will win over a wildly expressive sake. That said, I can hardly criticize a list that has my go-to sake on it.

Daiginjo A

Kizakura "Daiginjo" (Kizakura)
Taiheizan "Tenko" (Kodama Jozo)
Nagurayama "Kanpyokai Shuppinshu" (Nagurayama Shuzo)

Daiginjo B

"Maboroshi Kuro" Junmai Daiginjo Genshu (Nakao Jozo)
Ninkiichi "Gold Ninki Junmai Daiginjo" (Ninki Shuzo)
Masumi "Nanago" Yamahai Junmai Daiginjo (Miyasaka Jozo)


Yuki no Bosha "Hiden Yamahai" (Saiya Shuzoten)
Dewazakura "Dewasansan" Junmai Ginjo (Dewazakura Shuzo) -- Hooray for Dewazakura! This sake is widely available in Bay Area restaurants and I could drink it by the bucket, if they sold it that way.
Gassan "Gassan no Yuki" Junmai Ginjo (Gassan Shuzo)


"Kiokezukuri" Kimoto Junmai (Sakai Shuzo)
"Naraman" Muroka Binhiire Junmaishu (Yumegokoro Shuzo)
Okunomatsu "Tokubetsu Junmai" (Okunomatsu Shuzo)

Event details:
Sake Soiree
Thursday, Sept. 9
Yoshi's San Francisco
1330 Fillmore St.
Click here for tickets or more information.

Click here for a random Japanese movie recommendation.

Click here and nothing will happen.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Here's what Americans are really drinking -- and not

There has always been a huge disconnect between wines that people like me write about, and wines that the general public actually drinks.

This disconnect is larger in wine than any other field covered by critics. Book, film and music critics champion their favorites, but also write reviews of the summer's No. 1 hit.

If all you knew about wine was what's in the newspaper or on blogs, you might think red Loire wines are mainstream, pink wines are topping the sales charts and nobody ever drinks Merlot anymore.

Some might be dismayed to learn what Americans' 20 favorite wine brands over $20 are, according to an article in Wines & Vines. I find data like this gathered by the Symphony IRI group an interesting reminder that media love and public buying habits in wine are completely out of sync.

First, I'll run down what Americans really like. Below, I'll point out a few things that aren't on the list -- which is much more surprising than what is.

#1: Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio With 2.5 times the sales of the next-most-popular wine over $20, this is easily America's favorite wine splurge. It tastes like nothing, and the logical conclusion is that's what many Americans are looking for.

2: Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay A big contrast from the wines on either side of it. I like this wine, particularly the single-vineyard versions. People could be drinking a lot worse.

3: Rombauer Chardonnay Just last week the wine buyer from my local market -- Bi-Rite -- told me it took months to sell a few cases of this overly oaked, buttery wine. Like I needed more evidence that my gourmet ghetto neighborhood of San Francisco is out of the mainstream. About the same total sales as Sonoma-Cutrer; 1.8 times as much as the next brand on the list.

4: Charles Krug Owned by Peter Mondavi, this winery usually delivers pretty good value for money. I tend to like their cheaper Napa Valley appellation wines better than their most expensive ones, which can be over-oaked. Normally my favorite is the Sauvignon Blanc, but I don't like the current vintage.

5: Stags' Leap Winery I like Cabernet from the Stags Leap District as well as from anywhere in Napa Valley, but I think this winery is directionless as its owner, Foster's, goes through painful restructuring. I wouldn't be surprised to see this brand drop down the charts next year.

6: Grgich Hills Mike Grgich's nephew Ivo Jeramaz inherited a way with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Stick to the whites here and you'll be happy.

7: Groth Cabernet Sauvignon This was the biggest surprise to me on the list because I don't hear much about them, but I suppose that's because they don't need press. Another pretty good choice, America.

8: St. Supery They make one of the most consistently good Sauvignon Blancs in America and some interesting red and white blends with good balance and restraint. Great choice, America. But sadly, this 1-10 ranking disguises the fact that Nos. 6-8 combined -- all good brands -- sell less than half as much as Santa Margherita.

9: Silverado Vineyards Owned by the Disney family, the brand is marketed with class but I usually feel the wines don't live up to the prices. How much of its success is due to the Disneys' brilliance at selling things?

10: William Hill Estate Here's one I wouldn't have guessed. It's the biggest-selling premium brand owned by Gallo, which is a shame because they have better brands like Louis M. Martini and MacMurray Ranch.

11: Conundrum Who said Americans don't like sweet wine? Or overpriced sweet wine made from any old grape?

I'll leave off 12-20 because they're all similar; solid, long-established brands that I'm glad to see doing well, but not radical exciting wines.

So what's not on the list?

NO: Anything from France Imported wine makes up about 20% of sales over $20, and two Italian brands made the list. There are no Champagnes, no Bordeaux, nothing from France in the top 20. That may be Rush Limbaugh's wet dream, but it's screwed up. Order more French wine, folks. They're our oldest ally and they were right about Iraq after all. Move on and have some Champagne.

NO: Anything from Australia or New Zealand This isn't surprising; too many Americans think Australian wine should cost under $10. But it is worth noting.

NO: Any American wine owned by Constellation I can't understand this. Where's Robert Mondavi Winery? Ravenswood? Blackstone? I know they all have cheap wines, but the first two at least also make some excellent wines over $20. And Robert Mondavi Winery not long ago was one of the most popular premium brands in the country. I have been believing that Constellation are experts in wine marketing. I guess I have been wrong.

NO: Any wine owned by Jackson Family Estates This is a function of the price cutoff point, because Kendall-Jackson Vintners Reserve Chardonnay is still selling by the truckload. I'm just surprised Jess Jackson hasn't done better in the higher end of the market, considering how much he's invested in it. And he's got some good wines too, like Cambria and Stonestreet.

NO: Any American wine from outside California Chateau Ste. Michelle is a good large brand from Washington, but its wines are just a little too cheap for this list. I'm not sure who else would come close to making it; Oregon doesn't have any wineries that big, and while New York has done both volume and quality, it has never successfully combined them. This is just a reminder for the aggressive Californaphobes I encounter all the time -- 18 of the top 20 brands in the US are from here. Hate California wines and you hate America.

NO: Any California brand not from Napa or Sonoma County Want more evidence that Americans care about varietals and not terroir? "Sideways" kicked off a Pinot Noir obsession that the article states is still ongoing. But despite the beautiful Santa Barbara County vineyard views (and ostrich farm), none of the 18 California brands is from anywhere south of Carneros.

Last night I cracked open a delicious Australian Riesling -- Leeuwin Estate Art Series Margaret River 2008. Mmm, stone and nectarine. But tonight, after reading this list, I think I'm going to get in touch with the rest of the country. I've got a Grgich Hills Chardonnay in the wine cellar, and that's as high up the list as I can go on short notice. The Burgundy and Albarino and Touraine Rouge will have to wait until I'm feeling less American.