Friday, March 30, 2012

French shower design: Half door, wet floor. Why?

France is home to great wine, great cheese and the worst-designed showers in the world. The photo is from a 4-star hotel, but they're made like that all over the country.

Why? What's up with the half door, or in many cases, no door? How are people supposed to take a shower without soaking the bathroom floor?

This would work in Japan, where baths are designed to overflow and there's a drain in the middle of the floor. If there's some secret advantage to the French shower design -- better visibility for voyeurs? easier access to one's lover? -- I'd like to know it.

Or maybe there has just been a decades-long shortage of the materials to make shower curtains. Could that be why Napoleon conquered the continent? He famously sent his wife Josephine a message, "I'll be home in three days. Don't bathe." Perhaps that's because he was worried she would cause mildew on the bathroom floor.

Please, please somebody explain French shower design to me.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Penthouse Club food preview: sex and steak

Media night at the Penthouse Club. FYI, that's not me.
The Penthouse Club opened earlier this month in San Francisco, kicking off with a 4-hour preview for the press in which PR firms heavily pushed the food angle. It's a steakhouse! It's going to feature premium dining AND women wearing nothing but panties.

Media day must be a nightmare for them. Most of us don't make enough money to throw it on stage, no matter how enthusiastically they shake their near-bare buttocks at us.

But they also make conversation. Conveniently for me, the first beautiful woman in lingerie I approach, Naomi, says, "My job is to represent Penthouse. By being gorgeous and friendly and polite. (long pause) And by representing the food."

Great! Since the press preview only has snacks which aren't on the actual menu, I ask Naomi what she knows about the real food.

"I'm from Texas. I love meat," she says, standing about four inches from me, making concentration difficult. "I just had the best steak here. I like Mike. Mike is the chef. I like the chef." I envy Mike, but learn little.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Reflections from a week in Burgundy

If you brought a Chinese rice farmer to Burgundy, he might look at the top vineyards and think they are community property. Most have no fences around them or signs to indicate ownership. One vineyard -- and often one subregion -- leads directly into another.

Anyone can drive or walk through this hodgepodge of some of the world's greatest terroir. The great vineyards in the Côte de Beaune, for example, are almost all on the west side of the main road, in the mid-section of gentle slopes. There are a few impressive chateaus in Burgundy, but these are much more rare than in Bordeaux or Napa Valley, and they tend to be in the flatland, because the slopes are too valuable to put buildings on.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Burgundy '09 vs. '10: Rich vs. wiry

Benjamin Leroux makes perhaps the best wine in Pommard
The main question many wine lovers ask about a vintage is, "Should I buy it?" For Burgundy, with the 2009s and 2010s, the answer is going to depend as much on who you are as what the wines are.

The weather was much warmer in 2009 in Burgundy, not as hot as 2003 but with considerably more sun than any other year in the last six. In Bordeaux, that same consistent warmth led Robert Parker to declare it Bordeaux's second of three vintages of the century so far.

But Bordeaux's great wines, as different as they can be, are still much more similar as a group than Burgundy's. Chablis and Montrachet have practically nothing in common except that they're both made from Chardonnay. In Burgundy, a rising thermometer floats some boats and sinks others.

The best general rule for '09 vs. '10 I've discovered after a week tasting hundreds of Burgundies at Les Grands Jours is this: If the wine generally depends on what the French call "nervosity" -- fresh, edgy, lean character -- the '09s are not as good.

But if the wine is one you might like for its ripeness, then the '09s might be delightfully ever-so-much-more-so. They're not unrecognizable outliers like '03; like me after eating foie gras and paté all week, they've just gained some love handles.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Rully white wines deliver Grand Cru quality at working-stiff prices

Father and daughter Paul and Marie Jacqueson are famous for Rully
Burgundy lovers enjoy boasting of a small subregion they know that isn't famous where the wines are much greater than their official reputation. Rully, home of delightfully tropical-tasting white wines, is one of these for good reason.

Rully is the northernmost village in the Côte Châlonnaise, which is geographically the middle class of Burgundy. The upper class is the cooler areas to the north; the hoi polloi is the Mâconnais to the south. If you look at it this way, Rully is the upper-middle-class.

Most of Côte Châlonnaise is known for good-value red wines. Rully is different in that, although about a third of the wine produced there is red, the stars are the whites.

"It's just 5-6 kilometers from Chassagne-Montrachet. We really have similar soils," says Hélène Jaeger Defaix. "If you have a good location, you have the style of Côte de Beaune with the pricing of Côte Châlonnaise."

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Crémant de Bourgogne: great value sparkling wine

My drinking buddy, the police commissioner of Beaune
Burgundy and Champagne fought for the life of King Louis XIV. His doctors first told him he should drink only Champagne, but Burgundian doctors conspired with the king's mistress to get a new diagnosis, that he should drink only Burgundy.

For more than a century, two of the three best wine regions in France fought a vicious war of words, calling each other's wine unhealthy. Only when Champagne fully committed to sparkling wine did this wine war end. Today, red wines from Champagne are so obscure that I've never seen one on a wine list.

But Burgundy makes plenty of sparkling wine: Boisset alone makes more than 10 million bottles a year at Maison Louis Bouillot. However, Champagne-Burgundy hostilities are unlikely to restart because everyone accepts that Champagne is the best place for bubblies -- if you spend enough money.

However, in the daily-use price range, Burgundy is a better bet. It's hard to find any bottle of Champagne for under $30, much less a good one, while good bottles of Crémant de Bourgogne can be had as cheaply as $12.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Clos de Vougeot vertical tasting proves producer trumps terroir

The wall around Clos de Vougeot was completed in 1336
Sitting in a former chapel that is now home to the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, I had practically blasphemous thoughts about the importance of terroir.

For the second time in three years, I was privileged to attend a 20-wine vertical from Clos de Vougeot, a Grand Cru vineyard in Burgundy that was created by monks about 900 years ago.

If terroir were the most important element in great wine, one would think the wines from this walled 125-acre vineyard ("clos" means enclosed) would be pretty similar. But there are scores of vineyard owners and dozens of producers, and even if they all claim that "the wine is made in the vineyard," wine doesn't make itself. Everything matters: how the vines are trained, pruned, sprayed, etc. What barrels are used. And most important of all, when the grapes are picked. Even the most low-impact winemakers can change everything by picking three days earlier or later.

I'm not saying terroir isn't important. Geez, if I believed that, I wouldn't be in Burgundy, which I like to think of as one of God's greatest gifts to the planet.
Guess what this is! Answer below
But think of the chef analogy: You can give me a basket of the best organic vegetables available from Sonoma County, and Cyrus chef Doug Keane a basket of plastic-wrapped veggies from Costco. Whose meal do you think ends up being tastier?

Ideally, you want to give the great veggies to the great chef: that's when you have Grand Cru magic. Of the 20 wines we tasted today, here's where the magic happened.

Domaine Mongeard-Mugneret Clos de Vougeot 2008: The youngest wine in the tasting was one of my favorites: spicy and light-bodied with nice red plum fruit and great vibrancy, length and finesse. 94

Monday, March 19, 2012

The world comes to Chablis

The town of Chablis as seen from a vineyard on a hill above it
Looking at a map, I'm not sure why Chablis is considered part of Burgundy. It's 100 km northwest of the rest of the region, and some Burgundy maps show it as an inset.

What is shares with the rest of Burgundy is the primary white grape, Chardonnay. But the great wines of Chablis are so different from anywhere else -- more likely to taste of stones and oyster shells than fruit. It's ironic that Chablis, immediately identifiable to people who know it, is in the US the biggest victim of identity theft from Gallo.

The biannual Les Grands Jours wine tasting event that I came to Burgundy for kicks off in Chablis with the biggest crowds and historically the best lunch buffet. You'd think there's a connection, but I think the reason that the world's wine buyers and media converge on Chablis on this Monday in March is because when you want Chablis, there is no substitute. People will use the word "Burgundian" about earthy, leesy Chardonnays from anywhere in the world, but I've never heard anyone call another wine "Chablisian."

There are days when I wish I was Alder Yarrow, tasting 200 wines and offering a quick rating of each, and this is one. I fought the crowds for a while, found some wines I liked. Then I took a break and walked around town, noting on a war memorial that Chablis lost 78 men in World War I but only four in World War II. Then I went back in there for more Chablis. One of the most highly priced wines, Raveneau, wasn't there; this is the case all week with Les Grands Jours. There's no reason for Raveneau to pour its wines because they're selling already, and moreover I suspect the winery doesn't want people to compare its wines side-by-side with others that cost 1/3 as much.

One theme is that while 2009, a warm year, was good in other parts of France, it was an off year in Chablis because the wines thrive on cool weather. The wines aren't unrecognizable like the '03s; they're just a little soft for many (but not all) wineries. I'll be interested later this week to see if this is true for Burgundy's red-wine regions as well. But for Chablis, you're better off with the 2010s.

Given how little I tasted -- about 50 wines -- relative to how much there was to taste -- 108 wineries showing an average of about five wines each -- I can't claim to have found the best wines at the event. But here were some of my favorites. (Note: Grand Cru, in Burgundy, is supposed to be better than 1er Cru -- read it as "premier cru" -- but I don't find that always to be the case.)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Saint Romain wine stars at dinner in Chablis

A warmer for escargot: every home should have one
Aware that many of its visitors for Les Grands Jours are jet-lagged, the BIVB puts on a light, casual dinner in Chablis for our first night: 13 courses, served on a buffet, which means you can get up and leave any time. Two of the writers at my table said at the beginning they were going to leave early, yet they ended up having eclairs and coffee at the end like everyone else.

Though we're in Chablis, the wines are supposed to represent all of Burgundy, so we had only 2 from Chablis. Six of the 13 wines we were served were Premier Crus. But the standout was not.

Domaine Henri & Gilles Buisson "Sous la Velle" Saint Romain 2010 was the best wine of the night, with an earthy, leesy nose, generous lemon fruit, a sensual mouthfeel and good balance. 95 points. I hit the table pronouncing my love for it and was embarrassed by my vehemence, but later learned it won the plurality of votes at our table as the best. I have the last glass of it beside me as I type this from my bed.

This is why I decided to live-blog this: I don't know anything about this wine, other than that it's great. The region isn't one of Burgundy's most exalted. Here's the winery home page. It looks like the wine should cost $25-$30 in the US, but it doesn't look like any US stores have the 2010 yet; in fact, the retailers I found who carry the brand are still selling the 2007. I'd be happy to give that a try.

Other hits from the night:

Voyaging on Air France: Champagne is a good start

Airlines represent national culture, some more consciously than others. Continental's front of the plane was called BusinessFirst; on Air France, you have Affaires.

On my way to Chablis, where I'm about to take a nap rather than a stroll in the Sunday afternoon rain, I had no Affaire: coach all the way.

Air France has apparently made a corporate decision that Champagne in coach class will be one of its major selling points. You get a single plastic cup of Champagne, only as an aperitif; forget about trying to have more with your meal.

Still, compare that to how you begin your confinement in coach on any other airplane these days. The last time I flew Air France we got Charles Heidseick. This time we got a Champagne I hadn't heard of, Charles Lafitte, which must excite Chinese travelers; maybe that's why it's on the plane. It was earthy and complex and put me in the right mood from the beginning of the trip, which is of course Champagne's reason for existence.

Air France has other Gallic touches: it still serves Cognac as a digestif (Camus VSOP) if you ask for it. I flew TAP Air Portugal last month and was distressed to learn there's no more Port in coach. You'd think the Port industry would get together and draw straws to have somebody sell TAP some excess Ruby Port as a marketing tool.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Live-blogging Les Grands Jours in Burgundy

Next week this blog will be all Burgundy, all the time.

I'll be a guest of the Burgundy Wine Board for Les Grands Jours, an every-other-year event where vintners pour their latest releases for importers and members of the press.

I went two years ago -- who doesn't want to drink great Burgundy for a week? -- and was overwhelmed. In honor of St. Patrick's Day, I'd like to explain it with a joke:

There's a knock at Mrs. O'Flaherty's house. She answers, two men in black suits are standing there.
Suit: "We're sorry Mrs. O'Flaherty, there's been an accident at the whiskey plant. Your husband, well ma'am, he's dead."
Mrs. O'Flaherty: "Oh my Lord, my Lord, what happened?"
Suit: "He was working on a catwalk when he slipped and fell into a vat of Irish whiskey and drowned."
Mrs. O'Flaherty: "The poor man, he never had a chance."
Suit: "Well actually, ma'am, he did. He got out twice to take a pee."

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Don't be ashamed of good wine, President Obama

Because of criticism over the cost of a wine served at a state dinner to the president of China, President Obama has apparently decided to try to keep secret the wines served at the White House.

This is a terrible idea.

First, it's not going to work. State dinners are not top secret. Now that the right-wing media realizes Obama is sensitive about the issue, the Grudge Report and any other news site with even a modicum of journalistic chops will have the identities of each wine served before the dessert plates are cleared.

Second, and more importantly -- since the wines are going to be outed anyway -- President Obama should not be ashamed of serving some of this country's best wines at state dinners.

It's a boon to our wine industry, for one thing. Wineries all over the West Coast -- and some good ones elsewhere -- proudly display replicas of menus proving their wines were served at the White House to world leaders.

Despite being from California, President Reagan regularly served French wines at the White House: what kind of message did that send? President Clinton adjusted the message to the right one: this country's best wines are second to none.

The right-wing hate machine mocked the fact that our President served the president of China a Quilceda Creek Cabernet, which had a $115 release price, which is about what the White House paid for it. They trumpeted the fact that some resellers were charging $399.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

"A brief history of Merlot:" Hilarious video from Gundlach Bundschu

Normally I wouldn't post an advertising video on my blog -- well, I would as advertising, but not as an unpaid blog post.

But this Gundlach Bundschu video personifying Merlot is worth seeing. It captures the evolution of Merlot from big bro Cabernet Sauvignon's girl-magnet wingman ... spoiler alert! Sorry. Anyway, pay attention to the small parts played by Cab Franc and Malbec, which are spot on and hilarious, particularly at the end. You go, Merlot!

Gundlach Bundschu, California's second-oldest winery, celebrated its 154th anniversary yesterday. It's still family-owned by the Bundschus (there hasn't been a key Gundlach since founder Jacob Gundlach died in 1894) and clearly they're still having fun. Best wishes for the next 154.

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Monday, March 12, 2012

Should restaurants be rated?

The Los Angeles Times announced last week that it will no longer put ratings on its reviews.

Lots of things are changing in the Times' food coverage, including the end of its standalone section and the hiring of Pulitzer Prize winner Jonathan Gold away from LA Weekly.  But this change resonates beyond California, particularly for the crowd of wine lovers who hate the 100-point scale for reviews.

(Disclosure: I contribute occasional wine and spirits articles to the Times.)

The Times has used a 4-star scale for restaurants. It doled out four stars more sparingly than any major paper I know. I clicked on a link that purports to list the "top reviewed restaurants" and came up with two -- Patina and The Bazaar -- for the entire SoCal area. The Times is not the Restaurant Advocate.

Now, though, it's going to be all text, no numbers. Many will argue that this is the proper means of analyzing any subjective experience.

I am not among them.

Food Editor Russ Parsons made a two-part explanation of the change (the bold italic is mine):

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Mer Soleil Silver Chardonnay: The bottle alone is worth it

In trying to find out more about the wine in the extremely cool ceramic bottle at right, I went to Mer Soleil's website, where I was immediately greeted by "Buttery Rich & Golden. Oh My." So I know I'm not the target audience for the winemaking Wagner family (of Caymus fame), unless they make popcorn.

But I like Mer Soleil Silver Chardonnay, mainly because I love the bottle. A few wine writers have been tweeting about the bottle over the last week since we got samples of it, and I decided to take my thoughts on it past 140 characters.

Why do people order wine in a restaurant? In the US, the two answers most likely to come up in France -- "to go with the food," or "because one does" -- aren't common. Most people here look for an experience in a restaurant wine, and that extends across what I've come to think of as the liberal/conservative wine spectrum.

Your hippie liberal drinker wants something tended by hand from a biodynamic vineyard where the cover crop is grazed by goats. The flavors are less important than the process.

Your conservative drinker wants a heavy bottle with an impressive wine, preferably one he can tell his colleagues the next day that he had. Here, the flavor is less important than the image.

People in the middle, what do they want? A variety of things. But while there are plenty of people who are content to order "ol' reliable," whether that's Silver Oak Cab or K-J Vintners Reserve Chard, most American drinkers want something special -- in some way -- when they're dining out. It's easy for a sommelier to romance the client with "only 100 cases of this were made" or "this is a reserve version of the one you see in stores." This is why the wine-selling wizards at Bronco make special brands like Salmon Creek only for restaurants. It's different, it's special, it's an experience.

If I was out with a group of four, and I saw the Mer Soleil Silver bottle on another table, I'd want some. Yes, I'm going for package over contents. But to me, his is by far the coolest wine bottle I've seen in years. Maybe ever.

The bottle is supposed to evoke the cement tanks in which the unoaked Chardonnay ferments. What it evokes for me is the Roman Empire. Surely the Romans didn't have containers this precisely made, but the design sense seems the same.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Fantasy Wine League: An Introduction

Are you a wine lover who also enjoys fantasy baseball or football? Combine your passions by starting or joining a Fantasy Wine League.

You draft wines, like players in fantasy baseball, and score points based on how many points they get from critics. Whoever gets the most points wins.

It doesn't matter whose roster of wines is actually best; it matters who scores the most points. Just as in fantasy football, you don't have to actually own the wines to score with them.

Test your score-predicting acumen by forming a league with coworkers, friends, or wine geeks you met on the Internet. It's not any less useful than fantasy baseball, and the conversations about your team will be a lot more interesting to people who aren't in your league. I'd much rather discuss your daring pick of Penfolds Grange over Screaming Eagle than listen to you whine about your need for saves.

Here's how it works.

Pre-Draft Decisions

You have to make 4 basic decisions about how to arrange your league.

1) Number of members

Unlike fantasy baseball, where you can't have more players in your league than there are actual teams, the number of players in a fantasy wine league is theoretically unlimited. However, for convenience on draft day I suggest a minimum of 6 and a maximum of 12.

2) Scoring system

I suggest using the Wine Advocate because it reviews the most wines. However, you could also use Wine Spectator, the Wine Enthusiast or Wine & Spirits; any of the 100-point-scale raters. You could also use Decanter and its 20-point scale, or you could use my and my colleagues' scores at Wine Review Online. Whatever you choose, you'll have the fewest complaints about consistency if you pick an organization with fewer tasters.

As a side benefit, you'll learn how winemakers feel when they get a big score, even from a critic they don't respect. Nobody in your league will complain about the Wine Advocate handing out 100-pointers like Halloween candy if they happen to have chosen a syrupy Syrah thus anointed. Perfect score! Match that with your Grand Cru Burgundy, sucka.

One important point: if you go with the Advocate, you have to issue a written decision on how to count a score like "96-98:" lowest, highest or midpoint. Personally I'd take the midpoint, but that's up to you. As for "97+," I never have understood what Parker's trying to say; I think it just means 97 in capital letters (NINETY-SEVEN!) and I'd count it as 97.

3) Which wines are eligible

I love allowing any wine in the world to be drafted. But when I first proposed Fantasy Wine to Mark Golodetz, a Bordeaux expert, he wanted to form a league just based on Bordeaux. That's fine: that's how all fantasy sports work, by agreement of the team owners. You could play an all-Burgundy league based on Allen Meadows' scores, or an all-California Pinot Noir league based on James Laube's scores. Whatever seems most interesting.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A great wine fanzine: Loam Baby!

Fanzines are an endangered species in the Internet era. Pre-21st century, self-published magazines occasionally had outsize countercultural impact. Punk Magazine, for example, named not just a genre of music but a style of clothing and an attitude. Bettie Page endures as a cultural icon 60 years after Irving Klaw's famous photos of her ran in what were essentially fanzines.

Today, people like me write blogs like this rather than investing the money in printing an actual fanzine. Music, movies, style, all the topics that used to drive folks to self-publish are all on Blogger or Word Press now.

Loam Baby, a Wine Culture Journal, is a throwback. Written and self-published by an author who insists on remaining anonymous -- R.H. Drexel is the pseudonym -- it's a 66-page look at the winemakers of Santa Barbara County from a very cool-kids perspective.

Example: the interview with Greg Brewer, always a fascinating person to talk to, is pretty good, but the photos that accompany it are what really rock, as Brewer, wearing only a blue towel, shows off the giant octopus tattoo on his right arm.

Monday, March 5, 2012

There is no such thing as an "Asian palate"

Jeannie Cho Lee speaks to a table of sommeliers.
Jeannie Cho Lee is the author of the book and website "Asian Palate." So where do I get the notion that an Asian palate does not exist?

From her.

Lee was in San Francisco last week with Wines of Germany, trying to show us how well German Rieslings and Pinot Noirs go with the Westernized Japanese food at Ame.

The pairings were a no-brainer: Riesling goes with anything. Most interesting were Lee's observations that there are more differences between Asian diners than between Europeans -- with greater implications for wine than you'd expect.

Take Korean food. The intense spiciness and sourness of the tiny side dishes always leads me to think, first, no wine at all; maybe soju with acerola soda. But if I do have to pair wine with it, my instinct would be a sweet, low-alcohol white, like a German Riesling.

Lee lives in Hong Kong but is ethnically Korean, and her domineering father insisted on Korean food every day at home. She says Korean food has no sweetness at all, and "any kind of sugar is very jarring to our palate."

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Lamberto Frescobaldi Q&A: Why New World wines are the future

Lamberto Frescobaldi's family has been making wine for 700 years, yet he is as unabashedly New World as anyone in Tuscany. He went to UC Davis in the 1980s, entered into a partnership (since dissolved) in the Luce winery with the Mondavi family in the early '90s, and is quite thoughtful about why his company's wines today are not -- and should not be -- what they were a couple decades ago.

I spoke with Lamberto by phone recently about what Italians used to want in wine, whether his wines are better than Tim Mondavi's turkey, and other topics. Read on.

WBG: How has your family stayed in the wine business for 700 years?

Frescobaldi: We've been respectful of the next generations. One thing about the heritage, you have to think about the transfer from the previous generation that didn't blow up everything and did something good for the business as well.
You have to keep investing always. The company is the most important thing. Be modest. We don't own boats, airplanes or Ferraris, but we do own 2500 hectares of vineyards. The main focus is to have a healthy company.

WBG: Why did you go to UC Davis?

Frescobaldi: I was interested in viticulture. In an Italian university, you studied agriculture. You learned how to make olive oil, you learned to make oil from beans. The idea came from many years of how Italy was organized. A person would have some olive trees, a little vineyard, some wheat and corn and five or six cows. That was the idea of how agriculture had to be.