Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A lousy party with James Carville and no Manhattans

I love Maker's Mark Manhattans. And I'm interested in politics. So when Maker's Mark invited me to a cocktail party with James Carville and Mary Matalin, I was psyched.

What a disappointment it turned out to be. I stayed 15 minutes, didn't have a cocktail, had a lousy time, and wasn't going to write about it at all. But what the hell, it's funny. Maybe. You tell me.

As soon as I got in, I walked right over to Carville. I told him, "I write about booze, not politics, but I'm curious to know if you're doing any politics."

Carville: "Who, Maker's Mark?"

Me: "No. You."

Carville: "I work for CNN."

Monday, July 30, 2012

Taste What You're Missing: Taste science gets girly

Welcome a new type of reader: geeky girls who want to know more about food.

Every one of those three points is important in understanding the target audience of "Taste What You're Missing," an intelligent yet girly book about the science of taste.

And the more I think about a book written for that audience, the happier I am.

San Francisco-based author Barb Stuckey has the professional credentials to explain why a little bitterness makes food more complex, and why acidity helps drinks carry more sugar. She is a professional food developer for a company that consults on frozen and processed foods, trying to make them palatable. That's a lot harder than making a nice dish of pasta salad for four, and requires a lot more thought about what ingredients might work in a recipe.

While written for consumers, not scientists, the book has plenty of interesting science and some good historical research as well. Stuckey points out that sugar consumption skyrocketed in the US following Prohibition, and that the amount of alcohol you drink and the amount of sugar you eat are inversely correlated.

But I've never been more aware of the gender of a scientific/historical book author. She really loves her fiance. Really loves him. Like, a lot. And tells us. A lot.

Friday, July 27, 2012

New York Post vs. New York wine lists

I usually only read the New York Post once a year. While the back-biting in the Boston media is enjoyable after every Red Sox loss, even in April, it gives me tremendous pleasure to read the Post's characteristic mixture of arrogance and outrage only on the day after the Yankees are eliminated.

But Dr. Vino tipped me and many others off yesterday to an interesting column by Post restaurant critic Steve Cuozzo, who complains that he doesn't want to drink anything exotic: he just wants a "nice, affordable Bordeaux to go with chicken and summer greens."

I hope he meant white Bordeaux; he doesn't say, but that's a great value and great chicken/greens pairing. What he doesn't want is anything he hasn't heard of. He doesn't want Sicilian wine in a Sicilian restaurant, or Greek wine in a Greek restaurant.

It's easy to mock Cuozzo: he's supposed to be a professional food critic, yet he's uninterested in discovery?

What he's doing, though, is representing a certain mindset, and that's what any publication's columnist should try to do.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Farm workers replaced by sheep

Sheep at Ceago Vinegarden in Lake County can't wait for more responsibility than eating cover crop and being delicious
Clay Shannon couldn't get enough farm workers this year up to Lake County to pull leaves from his vines. So at Shannon Ridge, he's using sheep instead.

Many wineries have used sheep in vineyards to clear cover crop, especially at the beginning of the growing season. But Shannon might be the first to use sheep for leafing, which is generally considered semi-skilled work.

"People have oils on their hands that affect the fruit. It's hard for even experienced workers to use shears without touching the berries," Shannon says. "The sheep put that soft muzzle on the fruit. There's no damage. After all, it's sheepskin."

In premium vineyards, growers pull leaves at this point in the summer for two main reasons: to allow more airflow, which reduces opportunities for mold to grow, and to get more light to grapes that face the morning sun (but not the afternoon sun, because that's generally too hot.)

Shannon's sheep wranglers rope off a row of east-facing vines and let the sheep loose in them. When the job is done well enough, they move the ropes to another section. Sheepdogs herd the sheep from row to row.

You'd think the sheep would also eat the small green grapes. I asked Shannon why they don't, and he invited me to try one. It was a little sour, but not bad really, and to me, a lot tastier than a leaf.

"You're not a sheep," Shannon said.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Two arguments about typicity in wine

Two arguments about typicity -- one I sort of won, and one I clearly lost -- are what I remember most from judging at the new Sunset Wine Competition.

First: Should a great wine get a gold medal if it doesn't taste like you'd expect it to?

Second: Should I reward a very typical varietal wine with a silver or gold medal, even if I don't like it?

Both of these arguments lasted more than five minutes, and while we reached agreement on the first, we never did on the second.

I sat on a 3-person panel at Sunset's new-and-not-improved competition* with two Master Sommeliers. The idea was to mix up types of judges, because winemakers look for flaws, sommeliers look for typicity, and who knows what writers look for?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Robert Parker reaches retirement age

Yesterday was Robert Parker's 65th birthday. He spent it in Spain, drinking rosé, which isn't what his detractors would expect. But Parker has been his own man for almost his entire adult life, and I want to take a moment to celebrate that great life in wine.

Here's what this year's Vintners Hall of Fame ballot has to say about Mr. Parker:

"Robert Parker is not only the most powerful critic in the history of wine, but arguably the most powerful critic in any field in his era, with the ability to make the fortunes of obscure wineries overnight with just a paragraph in his newsletter. One could make an argument for his election to the Vintners Hall of Fame based on this fact alone: if Parker is not famous, who is?
But Parker, on the whole, has also been a tremendous, long-standing booster of California wine and his attention has been unquestionably a boon for the California wine industry.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Single parents love Smirnoff Ice, and other demographic data

Smirnoff Ice is THE drink of single parents. Grey Goose drinkers are smart enough to know better. Mike's Hard Lemonade drinkers really like killer whales. And women are way more attached to booze brands than men.

These are some of the interesting results from a marketing survey issued last week by New Media Metrics, a brand strategy firm that measures consumers' emotional attachment to brands.

The press release mentioned the shocking fact that the top interests for consumers who are most attached to McDonald's are news, health and cooking. Seriously.

I asked an NMM representative for some data on spirits brands, and she delivered some fascinating stuff. Starting with the highlights above:

* Single parents love Smirnoff Ice, with domination at the top of the charts way more than any other brand surveyed. Single parents also like Grey Goose, Svedka, Captain Morgan and Mike's Hard Lemonade, far more than married people or singles without kids do. Basically, single parents are very attached to their booze.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The best Moscato from California

The bleakest tasting I've done in years was of worldwide Muscats and Moscatos. Wow, is some terrible wine being peddled to consumers who probably don't know any better.

Fortunately, there were a few exceptions, like the very expensive ($30) dry Muscat at right.

But many of these new $7 Muscats in the supermarket are awful, and not because they're sweet. I recommended a number of delicious sweet sparkling Moscatos from Asti, Italy and one frizzante one from California. There are some great dessert wines made from Moscato.

But the majority of these wines tasted like corn syrup flavored with cheap perfume. Some weren't even that good -- they tasted more like mouthwash blended with a huge pile of aspartame. More than once I walked away from a glass going "eww ... eww ... eww."

Why did I do this to myself? Because somebody paid me, of course.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

South Africa showdown: Eric Asimov v. James Molesworth

Last week, normally cheerful New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov published one of the most negative pieces I've ever read from him, saying that South African Chenin Blanc isn't very good right now.

Over the weekend, James Molesworth, who covers South Africa for Wine Spectator, took exception to Asimov on Twitter.

They bickered for a while and it entertained those of us paying attention, because the wine writing world rarely has anything interesting to disagree about. We've got the 100-point scale, and alcohol levels ... and ... and ... frankly, that's it. Considering how interesting wine is, our discussions about it online are generally snooze-worthy. Seriously: who CARES that you liked the '06 better than the '07?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Young female enologists prepare to take over Santorini, Greece

Boutari enologist Ioanna Vamvakouri in a Santorini vineyard at sunset
One striking feature of the 10 wineries on Santorini, Greece is the profusion of young female enologists. Fully half of the wineries have a woman age 35 or younger who may not be in charge yet, but has great winemaking responsibility.

In fact, Santorini may have the most overqualified tasting room staffers in the world, as many times the person pouring your samples has an enology degree. There are just that many enologists to go around.

Women have made great strides in the wine industry in many places in the world, but in Greece, it's a very recent phenomenon, says Ioanna Vamvakouri, enologist for Boutari. "Five years ago there was only one girl that worked at Sigalas," she said. "After that I came, and after that three more came." On a relatively small island, that's a tidal wave.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Drink along with the Tour de France

Let's go to Wine Country!
The Tour de France is passing by Languedoc right now. Apparently the two leading riders, both British, are getting bitchy on Twitter, no doubt because they can see all this great, affordable wine but their trainers probably don't allow them to drink it.

I thought I'd suggest a few wines that the support crews are probably drinking right under the noses of the angry cyclists.

The 13th stage was in Le Cap d'Agde, near the region of Picpoul de Pinet, a large region that produces some excellent and some OK versions of summery wines from the high-acid Picpoul grape.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Wine Country by seaplane: Much more rugged from the air

I had an amazing opportunity this week to take a seaplane from Sausalito to Lake County to taste some wines, an experience I'll write about in more detail a little later.

On the way back we flew right over the Mayacamas mountain range, which extends from Napa County into Lake County. That's St. Helena in the top of the photo. Sorry it's not a better shot; it was taken with my Canon pocket camera through a seaplane window.

What struck me the most was how wild Napa County looks from above.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

$80 for a bad wine? My unsuccessful chat with a winemaker

How much is too much for a bad wine? And what responsibility do I, as a writer tasting it, have to tell the people selling it?

I was in Napa Valley recently tasting wines at a typical nouveau winery, purpose-built with a house attached, no expense spared, etc. Their Cabernets were decent and priced at the going rate of $100 a bottle.

This is not going to be a screed that Napa Valley Cabs are overpriced. Commodities are worth what the market will pay. I think Rolex watches are too expensive, but I'm not their clientele.

The owner was there; the winemaker, a consultant not an employee, was not. The owner, who had recently been to Bordeaux, was clearly proud of her wines after just 2 or 3 vintages and of Napa Valley, pronouncing, "Bordeaux can't do this" as soon as I had the first sip of very ripe fruit in my mouth.

The winery also makes a red blend, priced at $80, also not unusual for Napa Valley. One vintage of this was decent. But a second was a failure: it smelled overripe, of roasted fruit, but tasted thin. It didn't deliver any pleasure at all. I learned that the winery had problems with its Cab that year and didn't make one, so all the Cab grapes ended up in this wine.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The US needs a farmworker visa now

The price of California wine is already going to rise with this vintage because of a grape and bulk wine shortage that has even veteran brokers saying they've got nothing to sell.

Now, a shortage of vineyard workers is putting even more pressure on prices. And US immigration policy and politics are the root of the problem.

I chatted briefly about the current labor situation with vineyard owner Jennifer Thomson, who put her thoughts on her own blog yesterday. I encourage you to read it, but here's the Cliff Notes:

* There aren't as many farmworkers as usual because of tighter US immigration policy combined with the recent Mexican election, which may have encouraged workers to stay home and vote.

* Most of the non-grape specialist laborers live in the Central Valley, where most of California's fruits and vegetables are grown. There's plenty of work there now and thus less incentive for them to drive to the coastal wine regions. If construction work ever recovers, there will be even fewer workers for more fruit trees.

* Farmworkers with skills in working with grapevines -- this means most of the Mexican laborers in Napa and Sonoma County -- want to be paid accordingly, even to do tasks that require less experience, such as leaf removal.

It's striking to me that the hourly wages we're talking about aren't very high.

Monday, July 9, 2012

What baseball players drink on planes

Dodgers and Giants hang together on the wall at Mi Sueño
As the average baseball salary is now $3.4 million, you'd expect players would drink well on their charter airplanes.

For 26 teams, you'd be wrong. I got a rare glimpse into the traveling lives of MLB players recently when I visited Mi Sueño winery in Napa, a ballplayers' favorite. The winery offices look like a Baseball Hall of Fame annex, with autographed jerseys from Barry Bonds and others, and a priceless 6-autograph photo of all three Yankees to have thrown a perfect game, with the catchers who caught them. (Trivia question: Name them. Answer below.)

Mi Sueño provides wines for the charter flights of four teams: the Padres, Braves, Athletics and Angels. It's all red wines for the first three; only the Angels have a white wine, a Chardonnay, in addition to the red.

The charter flights aren't on planes owned by the teams; they're run by Delta and other airlines and stocked with food and beverages just as they stock business class for ordinary flights.

So what do the other 26 teams drink?

Friday, July 6, 2012

Tweets about McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's

My best Twitter shirt
Recently I noticed that, according to Facebook, 15,775 people were talking about Wendy's. "What the hell are they saying?" I wondered. So I decided to search for the main burger chains on Twitter to find out.

This is a selection of tweets I found on a recent Friday morning. I have removed all twitter handles because it reads cleaner, not because of privacy. Because these folks, they WANTED you to read their thoughts. And may I just add ... LOLZ.

McDonald's tweets

I ain't ate McDonald's in almost a year...I saw an experiment and never ate it again

When a person has McDonald's at 2:30a & then has a dream about racing on a Segway. One can blame the food of choice before bed...

McDonald's fuck yeahh.

Hahahhahahaha Mcdonald's hahaha

I will see you! I promise! We got to have another McDonald’s date with Christian, Brady, Matt, and others. & we can party to

My goal today is to go all day without eating McDonald's.. I honestly don't know if it's possible but I have to quit eating there SO much.

Bouta eat McDonald's after almost two months *shrugs *

That's dirty McDonald's. You're probably gonna die.

Burger King tweets

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Martini Gold with Dolce & Gabbana

If you've wandered into an airport duty-free shop in the last year, you might have seen a bright gold bottle with logos of the spirits maker Martini and the designers Dolce & Gabbana. I'll bet that few if any Americans bought one of these (for about $25) and tried it: we don't drink a lot of straight vermouth here, and fans of Dolce & Gabbana would keep it unopened for the bottle.

But you know what? It's fantastic.

The marketing is all about the style. I found this breathless fashion site that has a frame-by-frame reconstruction of the TV ad that reminds me of the way film students study the shower scene in "Psycho."

But I didn't find anyone taking it seriously as a drink, which is a shame, because the limited partnership for this stuff is over. Martini's not making it anymore, but you can still find the remaining stock in duty-free shops. The shelf life of unopened vermouth is pretty long -- 2-3 years at least -- so it's still going to be tasty.

Is it ever.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Au Sommet: Awesome Cabernet from Atlas Peak

Recently I popped the corks on nearly $2000 worth of Napa Cabernet, planning just to drink a couple glasses of the ones I liked best. I ended up writing my column this month for Wine Review Online about one of my two favorites, Chappellet Signature Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, which at $49 was the cheapest bottle I opened.

I mentioned but didn't go into details about my other favorite: Au Sommet Atlas Peak Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 ($250). But I don't want to give short shrift to the Au Sommet, which is a delicious wine and an interesting project as well.

Atlas Peak has been a rare problem area of Napa Valley, marketing-wise, for years. It certainly looks like you can grow great wine there; the Antinori family, who grow great wines in Italy, chose it as their outpost in California after a statewide search and paid a then-record $11 million for a vineyard there in 1986. At the time, Atlas Peak had only 30 acres planted; mountain vineyards were still seen as more trouble than they were worth. And it wasn't even designated as an AVA.

Atlas Peak reminded Marchese Piero Antinori of his native Tuscany, so he made a viticultural and marketing error, planting Sangiovese in Cabernet country. The flop was epic, bringing down the reputation of Sangiovese in America (as with Chardonnay and Burgundy, some U.S. wine drinkers would say they liked Chianti Classico but not Sangiovese) and giving Atlas Peak a black mark against its name just when wine prices were skyrocketing in the 1990s.