Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Kendall-Jackson's "Undercover Boss:" Thoughts on a great show

Rick Tigner goes undercover in the vineyard
I hadn't watched "Undercover Boss" before Kendall-Jackson's Rick Tigner appeared, so I don't know how unusual it is for the show to be so weepy.

Tigner tears up in the very beginning, and when his identity was revealed, every featured employee save one -- the one he almost fires -- tears up also. I guess that's reality TV.

Wiping the tears aside, I liked the show, a lot, because of its unusual focus on the business side of wine.

Most TV shows about wine are insufferable. Insipid music is usually the worst part. A view of pristine vineyards, never a mechanical harvester in sight. A dramatic recitation of the challenging climate. A grizzled vintner saying the work is done in the vineyard. and the magic is found in the glass. And finally the host ooohs and aahs over the wine. With the exception of "Mondovino," I've never before seen a TV show examine an issue in wine or even say anything really interesting; they all seem like they're made by PR firms to run in airport waiting rooms.

"Undercover Boss" broke all those rules.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Former NFL quarterback Rick Mirer now leads a winery

Courtesy Sports Illustrated. Photographed by John Blever
Rick Mirer was a star quarterback at Notre Dame and the number 2 pick in the entire NFL draft in 1993. Despite never being effective as a pro, he lasted 11 years in the league.

Now he's one of many celebrities involved in the wine business, as head of Mirror Wine Company in St. Helena.

I sampled Mirror's two wines recently but decided to blog about Mirer and the winery anyway, mainly for football fans wondering what he's up to now.

Mirer said he got into wine during his four seasons in the Bay Area, as a backup QB for the 49ers in 2000 and '01 and a backup for the Raiders in '02 and '03. The 2002 Raiders made it to the Super Bowl, but Mirer never took a snap that season.

The Raiders trained in Napa, which gave Mirer the opportunity to make friends with people like Jeff Smith, the owner of Hourglass and a huge Raiders fan. Smith and winemaker Rob Lawson were looking for a man to run the offense for a wine project they had in mind, taking Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from three vineyards in St. Helena and Oakville and turning them into a new brand. "Mirror" was already on Smith's mind, and the connection with Mirer was perfect. There's also a Mirror Sauvignon Blanc.

I do not recommend either. There's nothing wrong with the '08 Cab: it's one-dimensional, ripe red fruit that could be anything from anywhere, but there's no reason to spend $75 for such a wine. The '10 Sauv Blanc ($24) is lacking in acidity and fruit flavors.

Nonetheless, I spoke with Mirer by phone about his wine project and his football career. Here are the highlights (and lowlights):

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Expect wine prices to rise this year

California had its second small vintage in a row in 2011. Italy had its smallest wine grape crop in 60 years. Australia is still battling drought; yields are way down. The crop in Spain is smaller than normal.

So forget about vintage ratings: the way to characterize 2011 wines from most of the world is going to be "expensive."

This was the main thing I learned at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium this week, where I was a panel moderator. Ironically, my panel was about how to sell wine from any kind of vintage, but in tight times like we're about to experience, selling might be easier than ever.

Steve Fredricks, president of Turrentine Brokerage, said stocks of bulk wine are at the lowest levels in 11 years, and that includes just about every type of grape. A bulk wine shortage will raise prices for wines you aren't currently thinking would be affected.

Here's why.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

You are not allergic to sulfites

"Red wine gives me a headache. I must be allergic to sulfites."

No, you're not.

Some people are allergic to sulfites; it can be a life-threatening condition. They can go into anaphylactic shock and die. Sulfite allergy can cause "labored breathing, wheezing, gas, diarrhea, bloating, vomiting, skin hives and a severe drop in blood pressure." (Here's a link.)

But sulfites do not cause red wine headaches. And you know what? On average, white wines have more sulfites than red wines. So does dried fruit.

If you can eat raisins, you are not allergic to sulfites. If you can drink white wine, you are not allergic to sulfites.

So what causes your red wine headaches?

I'm sorry, but I don't know. Even if you do weeks of expensive allergy testing, you might not find out. Red wine is a fermented product of grapes and grape skins that's a soup of (mostly) naturally occurring chemicals. You might be intolerant -- not truly allergic -- of any of them. Headaches are not caused by true food allergies. Your symptoms are real; I don't doubt that for a moment, because I'm intolerant of tomatoes, and I get pissed off at the occasional person who suggests it's all in my head. Tomatoes give me gastrointestinal symptoms and, in high doses I'm smart enough to not eat anymore, hives -- but not headaches.

You might be intolerant of sulfites; that's possible. But let's get back to that white wine/red wine comparison. White wines on average contain more sulfites than red wines.

So you are not allergic to sulfites.

I've heard this story dozens of times: "But I was in Europe and I could drink red wines there without a problem. And they don't say 'Contains sulfites' on the label."

That's true, but the reason is that US law requires the sulfite disclosure on wine, and EU law doesn't. More than 99% of European wines contain added sulfites, just like US wines, and the levels aren't different on average.

I'm sorry, I don't know why you can drink wine in Europe and not here. Maybe you're not stressed over there. Don't ignore the alcohol percentage, which is generally lower over there. If you can drink some wines but others make you feel ill, then don't drink the wines that make you feel ill.

But you are not allergic to sulfites.

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

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Dewazakura makes limited edition sake like in 1981

Tasty -- and the bottle is pretty
Sake may be ancient, but its quality revolution is recent. The first daiginjos were made in the 20th century to win competitions and weren't sold to the public. When Dewazakura introduced its affordable Oka ginjo sake in 1981, it was a huge leap. At the time, sake was associated with cheap, high-volume drinking, and the drink of Japanese connoisseurs was whiskey.

To understand the impact of a consumer-friendly ginjo* in 1981, imagine if whisky makers had upgraded from blends to 18-year single-malt overnight. Or imagine if Burgundy growers had suddenly gone from offering only village wines to selling single-vineyard wines that consumers had only heard about royalty drinking at special events.

*(Quick vocabulary: ginjo and daiginjo ["big ginjo"] are premium sakes defined by how much of the rice is polished away, making them more delicious but also more expensive.)

Dewazakura Oka, for my palate, has since been surpassed in the company's lineup by Dewasansan, a ginjo sake named after the special rice developed for it. And ginjo sakes are now commonplace; almost every brewery makes them. But Dewazakura Oka continues to sell well, and the Yamagata prefecture brewery is proud of its place in history.

Right now, the company is selling a special 30th anniversary Oka that is made by the same methods used in 1981. This includes using Haenuki, a local eating rice, instead of bred-for-sake Miyamanishiki, which would seem to be a disadvantage.

In fact, though, Dewazakura Oka 30th anniversary is delicious and more flavorful than the regular Oka. It's fruity, with nice melon notes, and a creamy mouthfeel.

I first encountered it at San Francisco's Ichi Sushi, where the colorful pink bottles take up a lot of the wall behind the sushi bar because the sake buyers loaded up on it, knowing it's not going to be available long.

If you're reading this thinking, "where can I try this fine product?" I've got an answer. True Sake in San Francisco has it at $30 a bottle and ships throughout California. For other states, you'll have to ask them. You can't find the sake on the shop's difficult-to-navigate website, but you can order it by phone at 415-355-9555.

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

Monday, January 23, 2012

Would you buy a "bad vintage"?

This week I have the honor of moderating a panel at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, California's biggest annual wine industry get-together. I'd like to tap your brain beforehand.

The panel is called "How to Successfully Market Each Vintage, Despite the Weather." That's a polite way of saying, "How to sell wines from a vintage that certain publications have already trashed."

If you're wondering why they chose me, beyond my obvious physical charms, look no further than this post from last October titled "Hurray for California's 'bad' 2011 vintage!" My definition of a great wine is different from James Laube's (too soon to tell about Antonio Galloni).

As the only media member of the panel, that will be my main point: that while Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate are influential, there's an entirely separate market today of sommeliers and consumers who disagree with the notion that bigger is better. I know they're out there. But how does a winery reach them? And is it more important to divide the market, or to counter the mainstream impression?

Here's where you come in. The Gray Report has a great variety of readers, from inside the wine industry and out. I'd like to hear your take on this topic -- from any direction, whether you're a winemaker, sommelier, consumer or fellow wine writer. I will share your comments with the audience at the symposium.

Feel free to add Sacramento dining tips. I get a per diem.

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

Friday, January 20, 2012

Fungicide residue makes white wines sweeter

Wineries hoping to seduce drinkers with a sweet tooth have it easy: They can blast their grapes with fungicide, and apparently that will not only simplify farming, but might help sell the wine.

Five Spanish scientists published a study last summer that might have gone unnoticed if not for the Academic Wino, aka Becca Yeamans, who posted it on her blog yesterday.

I'll cut to the chase: White wines with higher levels of fungicide residue may taste sweeter and have more tropical fruit, apricot and floral aromas.

Wow. Talk about a reason to try to teach yourself to like drier, less fruity wines.

While the study has major flaws, notably that it has not been replicated, it's still a study I wish I'd never seen, but I can't unsee it now. I'll wonder from now on, when I smell tropical fruit aromas in Chardonnay, if I'm really smelling fungicide. And thanks, Spanish scientists, for spoiling floral aromas in white wine for me forever.

The scary thing about this study is that there's almost no good news for organic or biodynamic grape growers, nor even for low-fungicide growers trying to grow sustainably. It's as if a panel of sommeliers came out with a blanket endorsement for Monsanto.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

My ninja quest for two great wines from Brazil

Brazil has real cowboys and plenty of livestock farming; it's the vineyard in the background that's unusual
I'm pawing through wine bottles at a party. People around me are clinking glasses, smiling, chatting in French and Portuguese and Spanish, but I'm grimly grabbing one bottle after another.

This was my quest to identify my second-favorite wine in Brazil. Admittedly it's not exactly scaling Mt. Kilimanjaro.

I participated as a judge in the Concours Mondial de Brazil, an offshoot of Europe's leading wine competition. We judged blind and at the time of the after-party we hadn't received the results. I remembered two wines that I loved, a Cabernet Franc and a Viognier. But all we knew was the grape (or "blend" -- just that, "blend") and vintage.

The Cabernet Franc was easy to identify: we tasted only three Cabernet Francs, and only one from 2009. All I had to do was paw through three tables holding more than 300 bottles to find the one meeting that description -- and it didn't matter if it was empty or not.

But we had judged three 2010 Viogniers. So I had a sense of urgency, as there was a reason these bottles were on these tables: people were drinking them. I knew that if somebody discovered my favorite Viognier before I did, there was a good chance it would be passed around and emptied before I could verify its identity, because it was one of the best wines in Brazil and my fellow partiers were all wine judges. You ever seen how quickly a crowd of professional drinkers can empty a bottle that stands above everything else? It's like piranha on a pata negra pig: Mmm, tasty. Hey, where'd it go?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Impressions of Beaujolais

I was never a Beaujolais fan, and one thing that always turns me off is the smugness of fans writing about it.

That may sound silly, as Beaujolais is one of the world's most commercially underappreciated wine regions. But Beaujolais lovers often open with an attack on every other red wine in the world: Too big! Too oaky! Not representative of terroir! Pathetic manipulated beverages for stupid people, not like the honest wines of Beaujolais, which are for the enlightened! The natural wine movement also has advocates like this, and I don't think they realize how much of a turnoff it is.

But I've had a few good Cru Beaujolais, and I like to be open-minded, so when I was offered the last-minute chance to visit Beaujolais in December on a press trip by myself, even though the plane ticket was booked on a Friday to leave the following Tuesday, I jumped at it.

This led directly to my column last week in Wine Review Online, because I met Georges DuBoeuf, far and away the most important man in the region, and spent a few minutes interviewing him about how he tastes 200 wines a day. It's a good story and very self-contained; the perfect column.

Yet I felt a little sad writing it, because one doesn't need to go all the way to Beaujolais to write about Georges DuBoeuf, and by narrowing the focus to him, I didn't have space to give my general newbie impressions. Those don't fit on Wine Review Online anyway, because I'm supposed to be an expert there. Here on The Gray Report is where I admit everything, including my ignorance.

So let's do that. My strongest impression, after a week of drinking nothing but Beaujolais, is this:

Thursday, January 12, 2012

On the 100-point scale, uncertainty and types of consumer

Normally I'm bored by discussions of the 100-point scale, but I had a brief Twitter conversation earlier this week that gave me a small new insight.

One of the objections of scale haters is that a rating is treated as an immutable truth by some of the audience, while this is not the true experience of wine.

Wine tasting has so many variables. Some wines are better with food. Wines have bottle variation. I just tasted with Georges DuBoeuf, who is not the first person to tell me some wines taste better in different weather conditions. A wine I consider a 92 one day might not even be a 90 next week, but a rating is fixed and permanent.

I give consumers more credit than many scale haters; I think many people know that a 92 means "a 92 according to one person's palate." Besides, if you can't give people that much credit -- if you think consumers are that stupid -- then I don't see why you'd want to take the grades away. But I digress.

The question, then, is whether a 92 is always a 92, even to one palate. My argument is that regardless of the fact that the answer is "no," most consumers desperately want that answer to be "yes."

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Gallo's new Russian River Valley vineyard: Good, but does it fit?

I was unhappy when the US government last month expanded the Russian River Valley. That sounds like the Army Corps of Engineers blasted a path through an obstruction. In fact, it was a major legal victory for Gallo, which owns the 380-acre Two Rock Vineyard that's now in the prestigious RRV appellation.

Within a few hours of publishing my complaint, I got an email from a Gallo PR rep. Forgive me if this is inside baseball, but for the small community of us who have tried to write about Gallo in the past, getting outreach from Gallo was earth-shaking.

One PR guy who worked for Gallo for some years once told me his job, for a while, was to not return phone calls and not answer questions. They haven't been quite that paranoid for the six years or so I've been reporting on them, possibly because Ernest Gallo is no longer with us. I've never had anyone from Gallo be rude to me, but they also never used to volunteer information. The company philosophy regarding media seemed to be "no news is the only acceptable news."

Anyway, I was invited up to see Two Rock Vineyard. Again, earth-shattering: Not sending me a bottle, but offering me a tour and an interview. I asked to do some comparison tasting of wines from the vineyard and from Gallo's other operations in Sonoma County, and was told that could be arranged.

How excited was I? I was in France and Italy telling people that I had to get home to see this Gallo vineyard.

Monday, January 9, 2012

My mini-retail experience

Though I'm a Certified Wine Professional, I've never worked in retail sales or as a sommelier. But recently I had a fun encounter at my local food shop that made me realize somms and retailers have many days where they love what they do.

I overheard a woman ask the clerk, "Do you have any Tempranillos?" That piqued my interest. Who in California asks for Tempranillo -- not Rioja -- and why? The store staff pointed out a couple of Riojas, both Crianzas and affordable, and briefly described them. The woman put both in her basket, but looked vaguely unsatisfied.

I barged in. "Excuse me, I'm sorry to ask you this, but I write about wine for a living, and I want to ask you, why did you ask for Tempranillo?"

Turns out she had recently had a couple she liked in California tasting rooms, one from Lake Berryessa and the other from Clarksburg. She didn't remember the names. And she was going to meet her sister who she hadn't seen in 30 years, who lives in South Dakota now, and she wanted to show her some of the fine wines of California.

So Rioja -- though I love it -- wasn't the answer.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Alcohol-free "whisky flavored drink": Taste-testing ArKay

"Why would I want alcohol-free whiskey?" If you ask that question, the answer is, you wouldn't.

However, what if you can't drink alcohol because of your religion? ArKay is certified Halal, and the bottle's green and gold pattern reminds me of shopping in the Middle East.

Also, some people can't drink for medical reasons. How many TV dramas show somebody smuggling a bottle of Scotch to a hospital-bound patient? This is more sensible.

For that use, ArKay would be perfect, because its best feature is that it smells very much like whiskey. If blindfolded, I would guess that it's Irish whiskey.

ArKay was launched in December by a company headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, though the beverage itself is made in Mexico. Because it's legally -- and actually -- a soft drink, shipping it across state and national borders is no problem at all. So far, though, I couldn't find any retailers selling it, but give them time to find it.

I poured a glass of ArKay neat next to a glass of Tullamore Dew 10-year. They look similar. ArKay has the hue right but the 10-year-old whiskey is, not surprisingly, a little darker. Still, they look like variations of the same product.