Saturday, December 31, 2011

My winery and wine of the year

Wine Review Online asks me, along with each of its other writers, to pick a winery and wine of the year each year.

It's never an easy choice, and this year I was stymied by the idea that the wineries and wines I most wanted to pick, I had already raved about. I am very impressed by the turnaround at Barone Ricasoli, but I already wrote that story for WRO. I tasted the best Chardonnay I've ever had this year, from Domaine Romanée Conti, but it costs more than $2000, and I wrote that story too. I didn't just want to write a greatest hits piece.

At the same time, there was a thought I haven't been able to get out of my head. I went to New Mexico this year and had, not just the amazing Gruet Blanc de Noirs that I sent my own non-oenophile family for New Year's Eve, but delicious still Pinot Noir. I didn't leave the airport in Texas this year, but I had McPherson Viognier each time through both Houston and Dallas and just adored it. I had a suite of delicious Michigan Rieslings that made me believe that state is soon going to challenge New York for the best Riesling in the US. These aren't just good regional wines, but great wines, period -- yet if you follow the major ratings magazines, you'd never know it.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

In bubbly's worst week, try Franciacorta

This is the worst week for sparkling wine, though most people think the opposite.

This is the week when casual drinkers walk into the grocery store, or the warehouse, looking for an obligatory bottle.

It's not what they want; it's what they feel they must. So they go cheap; wouldn't you? Why pay $20 for something that isn't what you feel like drinking anyway?

They buy cheap bubbly. If they're lucky it's inoffensive like Sprite. But it's not going to inspire them to want to drink bubbly again until they have to.

It's like the impact Beaujolais Nouveau had on Cru Beaujolais. Yet that's a better situation because the grapes are the same, and so are the producers. Not so sparkling wine: people making quality ones are working in different regions with different grapes than people making the ones most people will drink on Dec. 31.

Which brings me to Franciacorta. The region has the strictest regulations for any sparkling wine in the world -- longer bottle aging on the lees; smaller yields in the vineyard. It's the subject of my Palate Press column this month. I started this rant just wanting to write an intro and link to that, because it was published the day after Christmas and I think not many people saw it. But I just had to get the rest off my chest.

It sucks to be a bubbly lover this week. You answer all sorts of soul-sucking questions ("which is better?" between two $4.99 specials) and give unheeded advice and see people either rewarding the mass producers with their economies of scale, or splurging on marketing rather than craftsmanship.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Antonio Galloni's first reviews of Napa: 94 is the new 90

Napa Valley had been holding its breath for months, waiting to see if the steroid era of inflated ratings for muscle wines would end when Antonio Galloni took over as California critic for the Wine Advocate.

Galloni's first ratings came out last week. Those hoping for a change in philosophy got a few crumbs, notably ratings over 90 points for Cathy Corison. But much more is the same under Galloni than not.

Grade inflation: Some might focus on the fact that Galloni, unlike Parker, gave no 100s and no pure 99s, although five wines are scored "(97-99)" and three are scored "98+." (In addition to creating its own standards of quality, the Advocate continues to insist on its own math.)

But high grades are clearly still part of the Advocate's marketing strategy.

Galloni reviewed 1061 wines. I used the Advocate's search engine to determine that 815 of them -- 77% -- scored 90 points or higher; 699 wines scored 91 or better. And people mock wine competitions for giving "gentlemen's bronze" awards.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Cock cheese for Christmas

It's been a little serious on this blog lately, so let's lighten the mood. I found this display of canned cheese in Mexico on the Yucatan peninsula, near the Belize border. Why they have canned Dutch cheese there, I don't know. But you gotta like that brand name. "Honey, would you pass the Cock cheese?"

Merry Christmas folks. I'll be back next week to talk about Italian bubbly, Gallo Chardonnay and other topics. I hope Santa brings you something tasty.

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

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Wine Advocate in Sonoma County: No scandal, so far

An important role of journalism is to publish facts and let the general public decide on their importance. Thus, under the watchful eyes of the Wine Advocate's large law firm, I'm going to put the following conversation on the public record.

I pursued a purported scandal. A Sonoma County reader told me that he was being asked to pay the Sonoma County Vintners Association to have his wine tasted by the Wine Advocate, and it reminded me of the ongoing Spain/Jay Miller situation. But it appears to be entirely different.

At worst, the Wine Advocate might not taste wines from new Sonoma County wineries this year, instead preferring to let Antonio Galloni give his own evaluation of wines Robert Parker rated in the past. Galloni says even that is not true; I'm going to run his email below.

The deal is this: The Sonoma County Vintners Association is helping to arrange tastings for Galloni in his first official Wine Advocate visit. The same as Pedro Campo in Spain, the SCVA appears to be trying to throw its weight around, and may be overstating its influence on Galloni.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Gift buying ideas for wine lovers

We're all wine lovers here. I've written the "wine gift guide" story for mainstream newspapers, and that requires a lot more explanation. But you and me, let's cut to the chase.

Here are some gift ideas for different types of people.

Gifts for casual/Two-Buck Chuck drinkers
Don't try to blow them away with their first great bottle of Burgundy. They might not open it, and if they do, they're not likely to like it, unless you're there to explain why savory flavors are a good thing.

I like to give bubbly for Christmas to people at all levels of wine appreciation, but especially to novices. I want to give gifts people will open and use, and next week everybody's going to open bubbly. If you don't help them out with something tasty, they're going to buy the cheapest sparkling plonk and reinforce their idea that bubbly is something that gives you a headache but you're forced to drink it on formal occasions.

Don't spend too much, or they'll save it for their 10th anniversary. I like to spend under $20 AND tell them that's what I spent. A few wines I like in this price range: Gruet Blanc de Noirs, Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs, Schramsberg Mirabelle Brut, Scharffenberger Brut, Roederer Brut.

Gifts for everyday wine drinkers whose taste you don't share (or approve of)

Your aunt likes sweet, buttery Chardonnay, or super-ripe Cab. Or your niece likes underripe "weird wines." And you don't. What to do?

Friday, December 16, 2011

W. Blake Gray now blogging for Crushpad

I've got a new gig (part-time) blogging on occasion for Crushpad, the Sonoma County business that allows anyone to make your own wine.

My first post, about when you should decant wine, is up already, and I have written three more that will presumably run in the next few weeks.

It's an interesting gig because I'm being paid a minimum for each post plus a small amount for every page view, which gives me an incentive to send my blog readers and Twitter followers over there.

However, maybe I just don't believe my good fortune, but I have doubts that this new paying job is going to last very long, and not only because I just wrote the middle part of this sentence.

If you go to Crushpad's front page, you can't see any indication that exciting new things are happening on the blog. There's just a tiny link in the lower left among a bunch of other links.

I don't know much about Crushpad's business model; I know something, because I've written about the company, but I don't have any idea what strategies will lead to its long-term success. But I do know something about the online publishing industry, and there's no way that an unpromoted site will attract a following.

Of course, the idea is that I, being paid by the click, will promote the new enhanced Crushpad blog, and as I am writing this post right here, it's successful on its face. Still, I can't write an item on my blog announcing every blog item I write there. In fact, this post ABOUT my blog post might end up being longer than the original post.

From here on, I'll probably tweet "Hey, I wrote this thing on Crushpad's blog, go read it, I get a few pennies!" I have tried to give Crushpad good quality writing, because I want the blog to succeed. I like being paid.

So I'll say it again: Please go read my post. Not only might you learn something about decanting; I'll get a few pennies. And tell your friends, "Hey, W. Blake Gray is now blogging for Crushpad, it's the greatest thing since unsliced bread."

Or, if you want to help a struggling freelancer and cut out the middle man, drop me a few bucks in the Virtual Tip Jar I put on my blog. Don't forget to tip your blogger! On the Crushpad blog, service is included.

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

Thursday, December 15, 2011

New Zealand Riesling rocks, if you like minerality

My column this month for Wine Review Online is a little counter-programming to what you'll read about wine everywhere else in December. Most folks are writing about heavy reds, Port and of course, Champagne. So for me, it's the perfect time to write about New Zealand Riesling.

This was a strange column for me, because so often I try to delve into issues, or introduce personalities. Here, I started with the simplest of premises: I just really like New Zealand Riesling. I think it's underappreciated, and one thing I particularly love is its minerality. But I didn't get to go to New Zealand (sigh), so I did more or less the classic newspaper-column style: I tasted a bunch of wines I liked, interviewed a couple of winemakers, and wrote it up. It's funny: that's what wine writers did for years, but for me it felt unusual.

The reviews and ratings at Wine Review Online are hidden behind a pay wall, but I wanted to tantalize you with the tasting note of my favorite Riesling from my tasting adventures. There are cheaper Rieslings and easier ones to find, but what the heck, it's the holidays: why not treat yourself?

Envoy Marlborough Riesling 2007 ($36)
Produced by Spy Valley; Imported by Broadbent Selections, San Francisco
Point score: 95
Envoy is Spy Valley's single-vineyard portfolio, sold in a long, stylish bottle that won't fit well in your wine refrigerator, which is a shame because I'd love to see how this tastes in a decade. The nose has lime fruit with lots of minerality. It's medium-sweet on the palate -- apricot, white peach and clementine -- with plenty of acidity, and a mouthfeel like plum jam on the roof of the mouth with a current of minerality beneath. It just kept getting better one, two and three days after being open, but I couldn't restrain myself so I can't tell you about potential improvements after that. 9.5% alcohol.

Read the Wine Review Online column here.

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

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Hungarian wines: Not just for dessert anymore

When the Soviet Union divided up production responsibilities for the Eastern Bloc, Belarus was put in charge of making tractors, while Soviet planners told Hungary: "You make wine."

Naturally the Communists botched the details of making good wine for the same reason that extreme capitalists do: They concentrated on volume and easy farming. But that doesn't mean their initial decision was wrong. Hungary is one of the best places in Central Europe to make wine.

However, the country is only beginning to create new winemaking traditions, because the old ones were just about forgotten during more than four decades of Communist rule. The wine world was very different in 1939, the last time before the '90s that individuals could easily make wine for sale in Hungary. For example, crisp, fresh whites as we know them today didn't really exist in an era when electric refrigeration wasn't universal.

A lot of money has poured into Hungary in the last 10 years because wine lovers realize that Tokaj Aszu is -- with apologies to Sauternes -- the world's best dessert wine.

What most of us are less familiar with are Hungary's dry wines.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Rombauer Chardonnay makes surprise TV appearance on "Chuck"

Zachary Levi as "Chuck"
Rombauer Chardonnay, swigged out of the bottle, apparently boosts computer hackers' proficiency. That's what we learned from watching the NBC show "Chuck" last week.

It looked like a product placement -- the label was prominently displayed, and the brand was named in the script. But I called Rombauer on Monday and it turns out they were as surprised to see star Zachary Levi drinking their product from the bottle as I was.

"I missed that episode, but a whole bunch of people called to tell me about it," said John Egan from Rombauer's sales and marketing department. "It's flattering as all get-out, but we did not know ahead of time that they were going to do it."

A little background on "Chuck": It's a spy action-comedy that was nearly canceled after two seasons because of poor ratings that have never improved, but it was saved by an Internet campaign spearheaded by my favorite TV critic, Alan Sepinwall. One of the things fans accepted about later seasons of the show is that it has more open product placements than usual, mostly for its main sponsor, Subway. The original Internet campaign to save "Chuck" focused on fans eating at Subway; subsquently, every other episode, one of the characters eats a Subway sandwich and comments on its deliciousness.

I am one of the small group of "Chuck" fans, thanks to Sepinwall, and was well aware of its product placement history, so it was shocking to learn that the show's producers hadn't managed to get more money from the winery to help produce the episode (which had a guest appearance by Danny Pudi from another low-rated critical favorite, "Community.").

Monday, December 12, 2011

Spike Your Juice lets you make wine from any juice in 48 hours

If I ever spend any significant time in prison, I'm going to ask someone to mail me a few packets of Spike Your Juice.

This fascinating product allows you to turn almost any kind of juice into wine in just 48 hours. It's really simple: It's nothing more than a small 1g packet of yeast and sugar; smaller than a sugar packet you'd add to coffee. That, and a rubber stopper and airlock is all you need to make wine out of basically any juice you can imagine.

It's based on a seasonal German product called Federweisser, the freshly pressed, still-fermenting grape must, only available during harvest. Federweisser is the opposite of shelf-stable, as it changes every hour and cannot be transported for long distances. I've tried it in Germany, and I like the concept more than I liked Federweisser itself. That's also true of Spike Your Juice. This is fizzy fun for the DIY crowd.  

Here's what you do: Bring the juice to room temperature and open it (a 64-ounce container is recommended; no artificial sweeteners). Pour in the packet. Close the top with the rubber stopper and airlock, which allows CO2 to escape; this is important, because otherwise your juice bottle might explode. Then, wait two days.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Final ruling: "Organic wine" cannot have added sulfites

The small community that makes USDA-labeled "organic wine" won a crucial, final victory last week to protect its market share.

The National Organic Standards Board voted 9-5 to continue to prohibit sulfites from being added to "organic wine." This came after the NOSB handling committee, which better understood the issue, voted 5-0 in October to support the inclusion of sulfites in organic wine.

Among the losing side, there was talk of at least one key voter being motivated by conflict of interest. It may be true, but it has also been my experience that simple ignorance of the wine industry will turn most lovers of organic foods into anti-sulfite people. And besides, the petitioners needed 10 votes -- a 2/3 majority -- to win, so it wasn't close.

One committee member, Jay Feldman, heads an organization called Beyond Pesticides that received a contribution of at least $4,000 from Frey Vineyards, which makes USDA organic wine. Feldman was by far the most vocal opponent of the petition to allow sulfites, interrogating the handling committee head, John Foster of Earthbound Farm, who supported it. At one point Feldman was admonished by National Organic Program head Miles McAvoy for "misrepresenting" the Organic Foods Production Act.

Now, that might be politically shady, as Frey Vineyards is celebrating the loudest today. The winery doesn't make particularly good wine -- I tasted through its lineup earlier this year and found most of the wines unpalatable, to be kind -- but it has a captive market of people who buy organics. And I'm the suspicious type.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Questions for Robert Parker as Wine Advocate scandal continues

For the past two days, representatives of the Wine Advocate have been trying to convince the media that Jay Miller's departure has nothing to do with the pay-for-play scandal still emerging in Spain.

OK, I'm convinced. Jay Miller quit on his own, months before the scandal broke. Stipulated.

But ... why is the Wine Advocate working so hard to establish that? Because what it means is that the questions raised from the scandal about the Wine Advocate's involvement are still unanswered.

I understand why Miller wants to tell us he leaped without being pushed. I've been there. It's important.

But for the Wine Advocate, it's different. When Jim Budd broke the scandal, publisher Robert Parker's immediate response was nothing. No comment. No action. I called for him to respond, and a couple days later he did, on his bulletin board, by threatening to sue "these bloggers." Still, no public response.

The very next day, Miller's departure is announced, again on Parker's bulletin board. Both Parker and Miller say it was long-planned. Miller writes,

"Some may believe my stepping down is in response to my critics. Nothing could be further from the truth."
David Schildknecht, who will be replacing Miller on most of his ex-turf, took pains to send an email string to Mike Steinberger proving that Miller's departure was long-planned. I believe Schildknecht.

Here's the problem:

Now the scandal doesn't go away.

Miller's leaving is not a response to the email string on Jim Budd's blog, which seems to show that an official representative of Miller and/or the Wine Advocate was charging for critics to visit a region, and even collecting VAT for such visits. How official is that?

The non-wine media is starting to pick up on it. The Wine Advocate runs a big risk of forever being associated with corruption in the public mind.

So Mr. Parker, now we still need answers to the following basic questions, and we need them publicly.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Jay Miller leaves the Wine Advocate

I've been laid off from jobs I loved, most recently after a few glorious months as food editor at SF Weekly. When that happened, I know a few restaurateurs, a reader or three, and a bunch of non-readers did a little jig or opened a bottle of sparkling wine. And I've taken a buyout from a wine writer/editor position at a major publication, the San Francisco Chronicle. As with any position like that, some people were happy then too.

Of course I don't know exactly how Jay Miller feels today, after leaving a position as one of the three most influential critics in the wine world. Miller leaves the Wine Advocate within a week of Jim Budd's blog posts (here's the one that broke it; here's a key one following up) detailing arrangements made for Miller to visit Spanish wineries for a large fee.

But I can guess how it feels, from how I felt each time I left a job I loved. Dazed. Vulnerable, and aware of it. Trying carefully to make all the small and bureaucratic but crucial decisions about dental plans et al. Should I travel? I shouldn't make any big decisions. I should bounce back quickly.

I'm worthless. I mattered yesterday. Today I do not matter. That's the worst thing. There, I have been. It is not pleasant. It is an opportunity to exercise the kind of emotional strength I aspire to and admire. And another such opportunity, tomorrow.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Robert Parker's response: He's preparing to sue

NEW INFORMATION: Apparently Jay Miller will no longer review wine for the Wine Advocate.

It's a red letter day for wines of balance in Spain and Washington!

(Hence this blog post is now a little outdated, but I'll leave it up anyway.)

Looks like wine journalist Jim Budd -- and maybe me as well? -- might need a legal defense fund.

Yesterday I asked Robert Parker to respond publicly to reports that Jay Miller's visits to wineries are for sale.

And Parker did respond, on his bulletin board, visible to subscribers only. It's not exactly the public response I asked for, but it's chilling in its effect nonetheless.

Since Parker spoke about suing "these bloggers" in his statement, I consulted attorney David Honig before publishing this post.

Sigh. What has the wine world come to, when we're all lawyering up?

Anyway, my original plan was to post what Parker wrote on his bulletin board here, on this website. But Honig -- who doubles as the publisher of Palate Press -- advised me that my risk isn't defamation, but copyright violation. Parker's belligerent message wasn't publicly published; it was for subscribers only.

Since Parker's lawyering up, I'm going to tread carefully around fair use of his response. Budd, without the benefit of legal advice, has quoted more extensively from Parker's response on his blog; you can read that (and go support him) here.

Parker says he investigated allegations from a blogger -- almost certainly Budd, though he never names him -- and found no substance to them.

Parker says he has asked attorneys in Europe and the US to examine every allegation and has hired an additional attorney in Madrid. And he mentions potential lawsuits by Jay Miller, Pancho Campo and the Wine Advocate against "these bloggers."

These bloggers? Did the temperature on the Internet just go down?

I'll ask again for the world's pre-eminent wine critic to respond PUBLICLY to the allegations.

Mr. Parker: if you investigated these allegations against Jay Miller and found them without merit, then tell us so. Your silence does not speak well of you in the court of public opinion. I'm no lawyer, but I can't see how telling us that the Wine Advocate is completely on the up-and-up is later going to hurt you in court (assuming, as I am, that you are ethically clean.)

You are an attorney; you understand the phrase "chilling effect." If you and the Wine Advocate did nothing wrong, then why are you trying to stifle bloggers?

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