Friday, June 29, 2012

Michelin star leads to higher prices for decor, not food

Restaurants that receive Michelin stars are likely to jack up their prices and spend the extra money on decor, not food, according to a working paper released this week by the American Association of Wine Economists.

Before I go on, let me say that I am a fan of what the Michelin guide has done in the US. Unlike Michelin's stodgy preferences in France for stifling traditional establishments,  Michelin inspectors in the US have more often rewarded casual restaurants with good food. It's easy to point out ratings we disagree with, but I pored over the Michelin books for San Francisco and believe they are overall the best guides to dining in the area.

However, once issued, these ratings may have an adverse effect on the restaurants included if you care more about food than decor.

Here's a quote from the abstract of the paper by Olivier Gergaud, Karl Storchmann and Vincenzo Verardi:
While we do not find any Michelin-induced increase in perceived food quality, we find strong Michelin effects on service and decor quality ... Michelin-reviewed restaurants enjoy substantial returns only to service and decor improvement. Our result suggests that (Michelin's) opinion on the New York City restaurant market exerts a negative externality on gourmets by giving restaurants incentive to invest mainly in service and decor leading to higher prices.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Cupcake Vineyards: the whole wine world in one brand

Adam Richardson, Cupcake head of winemaking
I didn't expect Cupcake Vineyards' head winemaker to start talking about typicity. But that's why America has embraced Cupcake: there's more to this wine brand than you'd think, given the name.

In fact, Cupcake represents an entirely new model of wine that others are scrambling to duplicate.

The idea is that its fans will drink different wines from all over the world -- Central Coast Chardonnay Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Mosel Riesling -- and they'll all be Cupcake. They'll also all be $13.99 in theory (the industry term is "line priced"), though you can usually find them under $10.

There are plenty of wine brands that offer a lineup of different varieties, but I can't think of any that want to make so many wines of typicity.

"A lot of millenials like the Cupcake style," says head of winemaking Adam Richardson. "People become comfortable with the Cupcake wines throughout the line, once they trust the brand and learn the philosophy. Having a brand like Cupcake is a new development in wine marketing: having one brand where you can travel the world."

However, Richardson has to balance regionality with the brand's expected taste profile. Richardson, a native of Perth, Australia, has put 14 years of study into the American palate.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Lot 18 layoffs: The Corrections

After posting last week about layoffs at the wine sales site Lot 18, I got an email from Lot 18 Editorial Director Eric Arnold, who was surprised to learn that I wrote that the editorial department had been eliminated, since he's, well, you see the title.

I invited Eric to write a response to the post, but he wrote back, "Writing a response isn't really my interest; supplying you with accurate details is. You've posted blatantly inaccurate information without checking anything. I don't want to write a response in the comments that points a finger at you for not doing your homework, since it makes me look pissy and you sloppy. That's why I'm only asking that you make corrections to your post."

Well, I'll go one better: I'll write a whole NEW post. While I did check a lot of facts in the first post (I knew little about Lot 18 beforehand), obviously I got wrong a very key point, which I heard from an unnamed source. I apologize to my readers for it, and to Eric Arnold, who must have worried that he was going to go into work Monday and see a man from security at his desk. I'm glad that didn't happen.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Calories in movie theater snacks

A new California law requires chain businesses to post calorie counts on their menus. Many restaurants have shameful work-arounds, like In-N-Out burger, which doesn't have to tell us how many calories the extra spread adds to an "animal style" burger because it's not technically on the menu, though everybody orders it that way.

I want to credit AMC Theatres for making its calorie counts legible and fairly straightforward. This did not come without a fight, as the Republican party in California suggested that the public doesn't need such information in movie theatres; what do we think this is, Russia? Americans need their freedoms! But that fight's over, and the calorie counts are posted.

They are shocking. And enlightening.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Lot 18 wine sales site cuts itself down to less than half

Lot 18, the wine sales site that made a splash by raising about $50 million in venture capital, is severely scaling back. The site laid off its entire editorial staff half of its editorial staff last week, dropped from nine to four procurement specialists, and dumped the food and travel businesses to concentrate on wine.

Lot 18 grabbed the attention of the tech world more than the wine world at its launch two years ago because of co-founder Kevin Fortuna, a founder of some companies (Gramercy Labs) and president of others (Quigo Technologies) that frankly I've never heard of, because I'm a drinks guy, not a tech guy. The venture capital firms were also a big deal if you care about that sort of thing.*

* (I once worked for a website that raised and spent $25 million in less than 2 years. Our founders and VCs were also a big deal.)

The sheer size of the Lot 18 venture was audacious. Lot 18 was originally intended to be a luxury-wine site, showcasing small-production wines with exclusivity whenever possible. The idea was that people would buy, say, a Howell Mountain single vineyard wine from Lot 18 that couldn't be found elsewhere.

The timing for its launch wasn't great: early 2010, with the US in the throes of a recession. And Lot 18 wines aren't cheap.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Is Two-Buck Chuck bad for California wine?

My column this month for Palate Press is a rant and a call-to-arms about being called a wine snob, which is apparently defined by the non-enophile world as anyone who thinks wine can be better than 2-Buck Chuck.

I'm not here to knock Charles Shaw wines. As I say in the column, they're the best wines you can buy for $2. Fred Franzia allows schoolteachers and social workers and other people with low incomes to have a bottle of wine on the dinner table, which is nice.

I admire Franzia's mastery of the supply chain that allows him to deliver competent wines with a $2 retail price and still turn a profit. We're so accustomed to it now that we don't think much about what an achievement it is: thinner glass, cheaper corks, cheaper paper, a single dedicated merchant -- anything to save a nickel.

But last week on my blog I ran excerpts from an industry report that says Australian wine is dead in the US market and blames Yellow Tail -- another wildly successful, competent, cheap wine -- as a major reason.

So I have to wonder: Is Two-Buck Chuck hurting American wine the same way Yellow Tail ultimately hurt other Australian producers?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Noilly Prat brings back US-only dry vermouth formula

The old/new again US-only formula is on the left; note how clear it is.
Bowing to the popularity of the dry martini, France's Noilly Prat will bring back the simpler formula of dry vermouth it sold in the US for 30 years.

The reintroduction this fall will come with a new name: Noilly Prat Extra Dry.

This may be somewhat confusing to US bartenders, but the Noilly Prat Original Dry that has been sold in the US since 2009 will still be sold under that name. This is the same style of dry vermouth that has been sold all over the world as Original Dry since its creation by Joseph Noilly in Lyon, France in 1813. (The company has been in Marseillan in south France since 1855.)

In fact, the formula for Noilly Prat Original Dry is still the same as in 1813, with 20 herbs and spices added to a base of oxidized, fortified white wine.

However, in 1979, the company, which had left the Prat family after 160 years of family ownership, introduced a different formula of dry vermouth only for the US market. The US version was completely clear and somewhat simpler.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Cutting edge fashion from The Gray Report

On Thursday, the New York Times ran a story about style in the fashion-conscious NBA. The league has been under a dress code since 2005, encouraging the wealthy young men to outdo each other with their hipness.

The story pictured Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder at a press conference. Let's have a look at a screen grab:

Gee, those glasses look familiar! Here's how the obviously jealous writer later describes the look:

Call it an ode to the geek, a nerdy blast from the past with pseudo-metrosexual overtones and hip-hop influences by Lil Wayne, Chris Brown and Kanye West. 
We later learn that although Westbrook insists, "I got a style of my own," LeBron James insists he was sporting this look a full two years before Westbrook.

Yes, but who was there before LeBron James?

NBA players and other young millionaires, if you want more tips on style, have your agent call me.

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

Friday, June 15, 2012

More fun facts from the Fine Wine Trade Monitor Report

Barbara Insel
Priorat and Rioja are leading a revival in the market for Spanish wines; Chilean wines only sell when they're under $10; and after two terrible sales years, Napa Cabs are making a big comeback.

These are some more of the fun facts I learned from the $995 Fine Wine Trade Monitor Report from Stonebridge Research.

As with yesterday's post, I have highlighted a few facts from the report and asked Stonebridge CEO Barbara Insel to elaborate. This is only a small portion of the report, but if you appreciate the cost savings, you might consider kicking some of your spare change into my Virtual Tip Jar (I take Paypal and spend it on food, rent and 40-year-old Madeira.)

From the report: "Ratings matter less. This is the first year nobody asked about the Wine Spectator Top 100."

Insel elaborates:

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Facts from the Fine Wine Trade Monitor Report, Part I

Barbara Insel
The sweet spot for wine in restaurants has increased to $65-$85; wine by the glass priced at $15-$18 "really moves;" and consumers are more willing to experiment with red wines than whites.

These are just a few of the observations I drew from the Fine Wine Trade Monitor Report from Stonebridge Research Group. Stonebridge charges $995 for the report, which is compiled from 55 interviews nationwide with key wine buyers. I've interviewed Stonebridge CEO Barbara Insel a lot of times, starting from when she was managing director at MKF Research, so I managed to get a copy for free and peered through it looking for fun facts.

I found many, and called Insel to discuss some of the observations in detail. I'll list below some highlights from the report, and what she says to elaborate on them. Every one of these facts is worthy of a blog post of its own -- heck, the report costs more than a bottle of first-growth Bordeaux (or 100 bottles of Big House White) -- so I decided to split it into two blog posts, so you have some fun facts to look forward to tomorrow.

From the report: "Australia is dead. Never seen such a mass exodus. Price points keep dropping. Market has completely changed and is not coming back."

Insel elaborates:

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Zombie movie wine pairings

Zombie Kingpin courtesy Marvel Comics.
Somebody on Twitter asked me to produce a list of wines paired to zombie movies, two areas of art and culture where I have some expertise. All right then.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)
The movie that started the modern zombie genre deserves a classic wine; something of impeccable pedigree. Plus, despite its age, the film is still scary; that's acidity. This is a good film for an aged Bordeaux, but unfortunately the '68s weren't any good. Film production started in 1966 so perhaps a '66 Chateau Latour is ideal. Rioja Grand Reserva is a nice substitute.

Dawn of the Dead (1979)

For connoisseurs, this is still arguably the best zombie film ever, even 33 years later, because of its mix of existential despair, social commentary and pitch-black physical humor (I still laugh at shopping-mall blood-pressure machines.) You need a great wine that's also full of darkness. That has to be Cabernet: how about a Robert Mondavi Reserve Napa Cab from the '70s or '80s? A Dunn Howell Mountain Cab will always do.

Dawn of the Dead remake (2004)
I don't like fast zombies (with a large exception, below.) Asked, "Are they fast moving?" the sheriff in Night of the Living Dead responded, "Nah, they're dead, they're ... all messed up." Watching corpses sprint requires me to suspend reality just a bit too much. But I have to make an exception for this witty, dark remake. Overcharged zombies call for a modern, high-octane wine: how about a nice Dry Creek Zinfandel, perhaps from Mauritson?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Gold Medal wines from Critics Challenge

Some people judge at wine competitions every month, but I only do a few I like. One is Critics Challenge, where a small roster of professional wine writers share tables for two, but don't have to agree on anything. The same wine is poured for both writers, and we can discuss it or not, but whoever gives it the better medal, that's what it gets.

I lobbied to sit with Michael Apstein, a Boston-based gastroenterologist and Burgundy lover who doesn't like the taste of fruit in wine. There's no critic I've ever disagreed with more fundamentally on what makes a good wine. So we're the dream team for both wineries and consumers: If it's a good wine, one of us will recognize it. And if neither of us like it, you probably won't either.

Having drunk with Michael, what surprised me was how forgiving he is when judging. He gave a lot of golds to wines he personally would not drink. I'm more personal than that. At Critics Challenge, medals come with tasting notes that wineries can use for marketing. I won't have "Gold Medal W. Blake Gray" on a wine I wouldn't drink.

We judged 150 wines in 2 days. A few general observations, then onto the wines.

* Sauvignon Blancs under $10 were a great category. Combined we gave 4 golds and 4 silvers out of 15 wines. The only category better for us was Mourvedres: just 3 wines and all medals, 2 platinums and a silver.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Winemaker-grower relations: the 8-point summary

Here's a quick 8-point summary of what we learned about current winemaker/grower relations by my turning anonymous comments back on last week.

A quick cautionary note: None of these observations, all from comments on a post asking for them, are universal. Just because some growers and some winemakers are doing something doesn't mean everyone is. And I'll say once again that without hard-working, underappreciated grape farmers, we wouldn't have great wines.

1) Grapes are definitely in short supply this year -- we knew that -- and some growers are taking advantage, demanding more money per ton and giving less control over yield, which might lead to lower quality grapes and lower quality wines. Some growers are even asking for more money despite signed contracts.

2) That said, many wineries have had an easy time cheaply filling bottles of mid-priced wine the last few years, buying declassified bulk wines from other wineries or ruthlessly underbidding on grapes that growers felt desperate to sell. Wineries that didn't plan ahead are suffering the most now.

3) Under-$20 private-label Napa Cabs and other such amazing values might disappear.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Low alcohol winemaking leads to big money partnership

Gavin Chanin
At age 26, winemaker Gavin Chanin has already worked 8 harvests at two of the best wineries in California, which doesn't even seem legal. He's already one of the best winemakers in California, and according to Forbes, one of the 30 best food professionals under 30 in the US.

And now, he's got big-money backing for his own winery -- his second winery.

Chanin and Bill Price, owner of Durell Vineyard in Sonoma County, announced a partnership Monday to create a new premium Pinot Noir-based brand.

Sorry if I sound like a broken record on the lowering alcohol trend in California wine, but that's what this was all about.

Durell Vineyard is known for ripe, rich wines. Its Pinots were big before big was hot.

Chanin, by contrast, makes beautiful, expressive, low-alcohol wines.

"Bill approached me after In Pursuit of Balance* last year about making some Durell Pinot in my style -- a low-alcohol style," Chanin said. "I jumped on it because it was outside my element, one of the great vineyards of Sonoma County."

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Are California grapegrowers getting too cocky?

Last week, a California winemaker told me that he's having a hard time dealing with grapegrowers he's known for years.

The reason is that after two years of weather-related small crops, there's finally an end to the surplus of wine that has driven economic conditions in the California wine industry since the record-setting huge crop of 2005. Wine grapes are in short supply, so growers can finally make demands, especially if they're not under contract, but according to this winemaker, even if they are.

I asked for details and he didn't want to give them because he was terrified of being identified. If grapes are hard to buy now, how much harder would it be for somebody who complains about arrogant growers?

To be fair, grape growers always do most of the work in making fine wine, bear most of the risk, and get little of the credit. There has long been tension between what winemakers and growers want: crop size, harvest date, ripeness, etc. For the past few years, winemakers have held the cards, and growers -- being farmers -- generally didn't complain about them. So please don't see this post as some sort of anti-grower screed: it's not.

I just want to know what it's like out there. Winemakers: are growers getting too cocky this year? Growers: Are winemakers the overly demanding ones? Both sides: Is this year very different from the last seven?

I have turned anonymous comments back on to try to get a feel for the situation. Feel free to use anonymity. Please identify what your role in the industry is, but if you don't give a name, nobody can trace it back to you, and I give you my word as a journalist that I'm not going to try. No insults, please: Just tell us what the grower-winemaker climate is like now. Thanks.

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

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Why I stopped allowing anonymous comments

A number of readers have complained to me that it's more difficult to comment on The Gray Report than before. I'm sorry for that, so I'd like to explain why I stopped allowing anonymous comments -- and why I'm going to let them back in, briefly, tomorrow.

I've thought a lot about my policy on anonymous comments since winemaker Charles Smith sued some of my readers in 2010.*

(Brief non-update: Smith has never sued me, has not yet hit me hard enough to knock out my diaphragm, and since I'm not a party to the suit, I don't know what's going on. If you do, email me.)

The thing about anonymous comments is that the most valuable of them are not actually anonymous: they are simply people who haven't registered for whatever comment program one uses (I use the one provided by Blogger) but sign their name anyway.

An old-school journalistic adage is to allow people you have written about a chance to respond. I liked having a low barrier to that. I'd say comments like this only accounted for about 2% of the "anonymous" comments I received, but they were important to me.

Other signed comments from non-affected parties brought the total of anonymous-but-actually-signed comments to about 10%.

Another important category is people with inside information. I got a lot of these relative to other blogs because winemakers would report techniques they use that they didn't want associated with their wine brands. (Ask me how chocolate wine is made some time -- I just learned recently.) I love these comments, but they were probably less than 5% of my anonymous comments.

The remaining 85% of my anonymous comments were generally:

Monday, June 4, 2012

Make your own plum liqueur

Japanese plums (ume) are in season right now; shochu and vodka are always in season
Umeshu -- plum liqueur -- was my first DIY booze project. In Japan, supermarkets make it really easy. So I was pleased to visit Nijiya in San Francisco's Japantown, and find it's almost as easy here, right now.

And if you can make umeshu (often mistakenly called "plum wine;" shu actually means alcohol), you can make liqueur from practically any fruit, and you don't have to go to any special Asian supermarket to do it. But I'll start with the umeshu recipe, which is how I started, and then tell you how to riff off it.

The hard, bitter, acidic plums (ume) needed for this sweet drink are in season right now. Nijiya sells them as well as bags of rock sugar, and has a sheet of instructions there for you to take notes. The only thing Japanese supermarkets do better is selling the container right there also; you'll have to find a large sealable glass jar somewhere else.

But making the stuff couldn't be easier. Here's how.

Friday, June 1, 2012

High alcohol wines are bad for your sex life

Dr. Ruth Westheimer
Dr. Ruth Westheimer orders White Zinfandel, but prefers ginger ale. She admits she doesn't care much about food. She's not somebody you'd normally go to for wine advice.

But Dr. Ruth knows sex, and she knows what's bad for it -- high-alcohol wines.

Dr. Ruth announced earlier this week that's she's launching a line of crappy doctored-up wines at just 6% alcohol made from California grapes called "Vin d'Amour." She hasn't tasted them, and probably doesn't care what they taste like. The whole goal is to get you laid.

She told the New York Post:
“A little bit of alcohol is welcome because it makes people not only relax, but communicate better. They will talk about their feelings, their hopes and their dreams easier than without alcohol, because there is less censure. But when people get drunk, there is no way they can be good lovers. And nobody wants to go to bed with somebody who gets drunk, vomits and wakes up with a hangover. With this [low-alcohol] wine, I am saying: ‘Relax, but don’t do it [drink] too much.’ If sex follows or not, it doesn’t matter. It’s about finding and communicating with a significant other.”
Let's forget about the Vin d'Amour wines themselves; these are completely manufactured products. Plus I defy anyone to name a dry wine that tastes good at 6% alcohol. But think about the message. 

Which is better for your sex life: Riesling at, say, 11% alcohol, or Merlot at 15.5% labeled, 16.5% actual?