Monday, October 31, 2011

Dog advertises winery

I was in Middleburg, Virginia recently in the heart of Loudoun County, probably the best wine-tourism area in the mid-Atlantic region (more about the wines soon). I had just had lunch at the ancient Red Fox Inn -- built in 1728, the peanut soup is still a keeper -- when I passed this dog on the street advertising a tasting room.

The dog seemed to enjoy the work; it paraded up and down the sidewalk carrying the sign. It got my attention: I shot about a dozen photos. But it didn't actually draw me into the tasting room, so maybe it wasn't that effective.

However, when you consider this employee was probably paid in dried liver treats, and requires no health insurance, you can see the potential. No wonder the wines are only 13 cents per taste; minimal labor costs! Now if they can just teach Sparky to pick grapes -- or do punch-downs. Don't tell Peta.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Wine geek (me) captured on video

This week I started writing a monthly column for Palate Press, a publication I like a lot and previously served on the editorial board of. If you haven't read it before, here's my usual description: it's for real wine aficionados, aka wine geeks.

Like me. Sometimes I seem kind of mainstream for Palate Press, because I write stuff defending the 100-point scale. So Palate Press readers might be wondering if I belong. Here's proof that I do.

This video isn't the highest quality. My friend Dean took it with his iPhone in a low-lit dining room at Bern's Steak House while I parsed the wine list, completely ignoring him. My friend Doug Cook, better known as the creator of the wine-only search engine Able Grape, sits unseen across from me, doing pretty much the same thing, although he's obsessing over the Italian section while I yak about Inglenook wines from the 1960s.

My wife thinks the video is hilarious so I decided to share it. I look pretty intense; she must put up with this sort of thing every time I get ahold of a wine list. I have no regrets. Well, maybe one -- that we didn't actually get the Inglenook, nor did Dean buy me a bottle of Yellow Tail from Albertson's. Next time.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Wine & Spirits Magazine Excludes Bordeaux from its Top 100

Josh Greene enjoying the rooftop Wine & Spirits Top 100 tasting in San Francisco
Wine & Spirits magazine has quietly drawn an interesting line in the sand: It has no Bordeaux wineries in its Top 100 wineries in the world.

"Bordeaux gets plenty of attention in other places," says Wine & Spirits editor Josh Greene.

True, but it's a bold stance. For most drinkers over the age of 35, Bordeaux was considered the pinnacle of wine when we started.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Barone Ricasoli "Chiantifies" a Merlot

Estate vineyards at Barone Ricasoli
My most recent column for Wine Review Online is about the turnaround at Barone Ricasoli, one of Italy's best wineries for centuries that had fallen on hard times under absentee ownership in the 1990s. The baron bought his winery back and revitalized it. I'm not going to retell the story here; read it at Wine Review Online.

But I do want to share a tasting note. Wine Review Online puts its tasting notes behind a pay wall, a strategy that newspapers are coming around to. I want to show you what's there with this single tasting note about my favorite wine from the portfolio -- and one of the most interesting wines I've had this year.

Baron Francesco Ricasoli
Barone Ricasoli Toscana IGT Casalferro 2008 ($62)
Importer: Dreyfus, Ashby and Co.
Point Score: 94
One of the more interesting wines on the market, this is a single-vineyard, 100% Merlot that doesn't list the grape variety anywhere on the bottle. Baron Francesco Ricasoli says, "We are not selling varietal wines. We are selling terroir wines. If people buy this because they want Merlot, they will be disappointed."
That's most likely true: the aromas of cherry with some herbaceousness might fit on Bordeaux's Right Bank, but the mouthfeel is unique: the fine acidity of Chianti with the gentle tannins of Merlot. The flavors are mostly of cherry, with some cherry tobacco notes, and that acidity allows you to drink it with foods you would never imagine opening Merlot with. "This is Merlot, but it's speaking the language of Brolio," Ricasoli says. It's a positive example of internationalization providing not a generic wine that could come from anywhere, but a great new type of wine that we hadn't previously imagined.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Organic wine gets one step closer to allowing sulfites

Organic grape growers seeking a better chance to make the additional money their efforts deserve got one step closer last week. A petition to allow USDA Organic wine to include sulfites cleared the second -- and perhaps most significant -- of four procedural hurdles.

"We think this step was pretty crucial," said Steven Hoffman, managing director of Compass Natural in Boulder, Col. "But the next meeting will be crucial too, and the small group of no-sulfites-added constituents are going to be very vocal."

Your comments (due by Nov. 13) might help tip the balance. I'll tell you below how to participate.

A quick background on the issue, which I wrote about earlier this year for the Los Angeles Times. Currently "organic wine" cannot contain any added sulfites, though sulfites are a crucial element in winemaking. This has kept organic wine marginalized at a time when organic grocery sales continue to grow, and it has allowed all types of green claims -- some legitimate, some specious -- to proliferate to fill the need.

Wines with sulfites added -- organic or not -- must say this on the label; the petition would not change that. What the petition would do would shake "organic wine" from its association with poorly made no-sulfite wines that often spoiled before they reached the consumer. And that might mean that organic wine -- which currently costs less, on average, than similar non-organic wine despite the extra effort and expense in making it -- might finally earn a premium, which could encourage more growers to get certified.

I think it's a fair argument that adding sulfites is adulteration that is not allowed in other organic products. However, wine has different demands than other organic products, mainly because of a more complicated distribution system. You can't just put your wine on a truck, drive it to a farmers' market and sell it; you would be arrested. Wine sits in warehouses for months and sometimes isn't drunk for years after its bottling; organic apple juice doesn't have this problem.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

6 Ways Wine Writing Differs from Food Writing

Some of you noticed I hadn't posted very often lately. The reason was that I spent the summer doing a day job as food editor at SF Weekly: a job I was recently laid off from, as part of Village Voice Media's nationwide cuts.

I've written about food here and there for more than 20 years, but this was the first time I had a full-time job immersed in the world of food -- not wine and spirits.

One thing I didn't expect was how small the wine world looks, from the position of the food world. The greatest thing about food writing is that it's such a huge playground, with so many more subjects to consider.

I would take a break on weekends to look at what my favorite wine writers were up to, and look: another article on high alcohol! Another screed about how California wines are too ripe! Don't get me wrong, I love writing about wine, and since I do it for money, I even wrote a 100-point-scale essay for Palate Press on the side this summer.

I cranked that out in about 25 minutes because let's face it, is there anything new to say on the topic? Yet we got 65 comments, which means my colleague W.R. Tish and I aren't the only wine lovers who like saying the same things over and over.

That's only one of a few differences between food writing and wine writing. From my fresh perspective, and since I've got some unexpected free time just now, I thought I'd list a few others:

* Winemakers are much better interviews than chefs
All winemakers have college degrees; most have advanced degrees. Some chefs go to culinary school rather than college, and while they may make creative, expressive dishes, usually they're not great at talking about them.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Adam Lee rebuts my post on California's "bad" 2011 vintage

Today I welcome guest poster Adam Lee, owner/winemaker of Siduri and Novy, 
with a rebuttal to my post yesterday. 
Adam Lee in Pisoni Vineyard in warmer, happier days
Yesterday, I fired off a rather abrupt (re: pissed off) email to Blake after his column on the 2011 growing season. Blake graciously asked me to polish my email into a column. Thank you for this opportunity, Blake.

First off, here is my perspective on the 2011 vintage in California. 

There are going to be some excellent wines made in 2011, largely those picked before the rains that started on Oct. 3. 

There are some good wines made that were picked just before or just after the Oct. 3 rains. These grapes were in a window of ripeness, but not truly fully ripe. In many cases, these grapes were picked because the grapes were ripe enough but botrytis was already an issue in the vineyards, and they wouldn’t deal well with the rain.

After the unexpected rain of Oct. 10 (which primarily hit the North Bay counties of Napa and Sonoma), many grapes started to deteriorate rapidly and rot became a major issue. In many cases, picking decisions became more a case of triage than of harvesting great grapes. Vineyards in the Central Coast, not hit by this second rain, often continued (and still continue) to ripen in good shape.

So, there you go, a vintage of mixed quality, ranging from great to poor. I have spoken to many friends who make wine, from those who make lower-alcohol, leaner styles of California wine to those who make a bigger, riper style and they are largely of the same opinion. Of course, there are exceptions, and some of those came to light in the comments to Blake’s column yesterday.

So, why did Blake’s column piss me off so much?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Hurray for California's "bad" 2011 vintage!

This is the worst way to decide if grapes are ripe enough
What makes a great vintage in California? According to Wine Spectator and the Wine Advocate, it's a hot, dry summer where the grapes get really ripe.

For the last fortnight hard rains hit northern California, and people who hadn't yet picked their grapes -- which included most makers of red wine -- are now dealing with water-bloated berries and botrytis. They're praying for hot dry weather so they can get their grapes ripe and concentrated. So they can make those 16% alcohol Cabernet Sauvignons we all know and love.

Many, perhaps most, will fail. They face unpleasant choices: Harvest and make a less-concentrated wine, or leave the grapes unharvested. The latter could be financially ruinous, so perhaps most will do the former.

That could be the best thing to happen to California wine in years.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Why nobody writes bad things about wine

On Saturday I deleted a lengthy interview with tasting notes that I wrote up months before, in which I said most of the wines were, for me, undrinkable. After seeing that the cult status for this winery is rising, I tweeted about it and a few other writers wanted me to reveal the winery.

I won't. My reasons have partly to do with the winemaker, but mostly to do with my relationship with the wine industry, which is why you rarely see anything negative written by a professional about any wine.

This is a dark side of today's wine media. I sell stories about wine; that makes me a professional wine writer, whether or not I make enough money to pay the rent. If I had a full-time job that I believed would never be taken away, I could theoretically write more honestly about bad wines. But when I did have the closest thing to such a gig, as a newspaper wine critic, our company policy was to only write about wines we liked.

How many critics anywhere today write negative reviews? James Laube of Wine Spectator drops the occasional sub-80 rating; there's a man confident in his position. Jancis Robinson, who runs her own company, famously called an expensive Bordeaux "a ridiculous wine," though she seemed to do so mostly to disagree with Robert Parker.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A great $9 Pinot Noir: Casillero del Diablo 2010

Concha y Toro Casillero del Diablo Reserve Casablanca Valley Pinot Noir 2010 ($9) 
Critic's rating: 90

There's probably no harder thing to find in the wine world than a good, cheap Pinot Noir.

The grape doesn't lend itself to budget viticulture. It wants to be picked by hand and gently crushed, not shaken off its vine by a machine and roughly tossed around in a giant tank.

Mainly, though, Pinot Noir wants to grow in a cool area, with plenty of fog. In California that's a problem because cool spots are on the coast, where the real estate is most expensive.

Chile's Casablanca Valley solves this problem, at least for the moment, before the world recognizes what the Chileans have there. The region has a deserved reputation in Europe as the source of consistently good, cheap Sauvignon Blanc. But the Pinot Noir isn't well known, though wines like this could change that. So the land is still cheap, which means the grapes and wines are cheap too.

This is not a boutique wine: it's a big brand. Look at that price. I'd like to spin the fiction of terroir, of some curmudgeonly seventh-generation grower sleeping among the vines in summer, in touch with their inner souls, coaxing out all their complexity. (Hmm, maybe I should get a job writing some wine marketing.)

But it would be fiction. For this price, we know how the wine was made. And yet, the grapes must be really high quality, because this wine is superb.

The French have a word they use in English: "nervosity." Like all terms that don't translate well, I'm not sure exactly what they mean, but I believe it's in this wine. This wine has great freshness: in fact, it reminds me more of young cru Beaujolais, in a good way, because young Pinots are so rarely this fresh. The bright cherry fruit is initially almost Life Saver-like, and there's not a lot of complexity. In fact, if you opened this wine in a big tasting with a bunch of more expensive Pinots -- as I did -- you might miss it. I first thought, clean and fresh, good value for the price.

Then I had dinner, with my six favorite Pinots from the tasting. The other five all cost at least three times as much. One cost 11 times as much. And this was the bottle I emptied. I admired the profundity of the other wines, but I kept reaching to refill my glass of this wine. So I admit, I adjusted my rating upward from my initial impression, and James Laube would disapprove.

But it's a genuine Pinot: light-bodied (13.8% alcohol), fresh, real. It's not going to inspire you to soliloquies. But I'll bet it's the best $9 wine in every store that carries it.
Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Old wines are uncool, and therefore cheap

This wine was sooo cheap
Last week I had perhaps the greatest set of wines I've ever had at a single meal, and considering the freebie meals I get invited to, that's saying something.

But this time I was paying, along with six of my friends, so the budget wasn't unlimited. It was a special occasion, so we splurged on one name-brand: a DRC La Tache, but we bought a vintage (1992) that wasn't considered a great one.

One of my friends was Doug Cook, who wine geeks know as @ablegrape. We pawed the wine list and obsessed over it, preventing our other friends from getting food for a long while. But in the end, other than Doug's Gattinara and my DRC, we gave the sommelier, the estimable Brad Dixon of Bern's Steakhouse, nearly carte blanche to impress us, albeit with a bottle price limit (DRC excepted) of about $150.

This is the list of wines we ended up drinking:

This might have been my favorite
Iron Horse 2004 Brut
Balbach Rheinhessen Niersteiner Oelberg Riesling Auslese 1976
L. Revol Côte-Rôtie 1964
Louis Latour Bonnes Mares 1976
Chateau Rayas Chateauneuf du Pape 1974
Ridge York Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 1978
Mario Antoniolo Santa Chiara Gattinara 1964
Domaine Romanée Conti La Tache 1992

I'm not going to bore you with tasting notes, which if they were accurate recitations, would be something like "Mmm. Wow. Heaven smells like this." Yes, DRC really is that good -- but so were the others. I probably shouldn't write a post at all, frankly, because I was there to drink and celebrate, not take notes and pontificate.

But when we got the final bill, I was astonished at how cheap the meal ended up being. And the reason is simple: our idea of great wine isn't the same as most of America's.

The couple across from us had a corporate Cabernet Sauvignon: a good Napa Valley wine, one that I like, from a near-current vintage. It cost more than the 1974 Chateau Rayas.

If you throw out the DRC, you could have the first seven wines on our list for far less than the price of one cult Napa Cabernet. If you include the DRC, you could have all eight wines for less than the price of a current-release first-growth Bordeaux.

I could probably write some sort of cultural statement. But you know what? You just keep right on valuing wine that way, America. Harlan Estate and Hundred Acre are worth seven bottles each of 1964 Côte-Rôtie. And if you really want to splurge, I hear Screaming Eagle's nice.
Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Alicia's Tamales Los Mayas wraps the American dream in cornhusks

A couple weeks ago, Alicia Villaneuva watched with pride as a helper drove a small cart -- much heavier than a Costco grocery cart, but not much bigger -- onto a spot arranged for her in Justin Hermann Plaza, across from the Ferry Building in San Francisco.

This is the next step in Villaneuva's American dream, which started 10 years ago when she came from Mazatlan, Mexico to Berkeley.

"Like everybody, I look for a better life and a better future," Villaneuva says. "In our country you work 24 hours every day but there is no money. It's a very poor area. I worked in the tourism industry handling conventions. But it is seasonal: no tourism, no work."

Villaneuva learned to make tamales from her grandmother. When she first got to the States, she made tamales and sold them in front of Saint Elizabeth Catholic Parish in Oakland. She also began selling them door to door.

"I knocked on people's doors and told them, 'I am a mom with three kids and I hope you will taste my tamales'," she said. "Fortunately the people said my tamales are very good."

Before you ask, yeah, that's illegal.