Thursday, August 30, 2012

Poll: Do you believe Wine Spectator bases its ratings solely on blind tasting?

I made a one-off comment earlier this week that stirred up some readers, about whether or not people believe Wine Spectator bases its ratings solely on blind tasting.

So let's find out with a poll. What do people believe? Do you think Wine Spectator bases its ratings solely on blind tasting, or do you believe adjustments are made to the results?

On the Yes side, Wine Spectator conducts blind tastings, lots of them. Plus, the magazine's published statements consistently state that the ratings are based solely on blind tastings.

On the No side, James Suckling, who worked for Wine Spectator at the time, told the director of "Mondovino" with the camera rolling that he ensured 90-point ratings for his landlord in Italy. Suckling doesn't work there anymore. And maybe he was kidding.

This is not a referendum on the quality or usability of Wine Spectator's ratings. People disagree with  critics' tastes; that's not what we're asking here.

The vote is completely anonymous, and is supposed to stay open through 2 p.m. on September 5.

I'll announce the results as soon as I'm able (I'll be in France next week with limited Internet access). Thanks for voting!

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

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Harvest starts in California and it looks "normal" again

Hugh Chappelle
Harvest is underway in California, and 2012 appears to be a more "normal" year than the last two.

Quivira winemaker Hugh Chappelle kicked off his harvest by bringing in some Sauvignon Blanc from the winery's estate vineyard in Dry Creek Valley on Monday. I was glad to hear it, because I'm a fan of Quivira's Sauvignon Blanc, which has the vibrancy of California fruit with the restraint of the Loire.

Chappelle spoke with me yesterday about the 2012 vintage so far.

Are you the first to pick in your area?
We're among the very first to pick for still wine. Some people pick early for sparkling for J and Piper Sonoma. I've heard rumors of people pulling off some Dijon Clone Chardonnay on the borders of Russian River Valley. It seems to be just starting to trickle in. 

I know it's early, but how would you characterize the 2012 vintage so far?
There's a huge amount of excitement in the winemaking community over this vintage. The last two have been pretty darn challenging. 2010 had a lot of sunburn and desiccation. 2011 had so much mildew.
This has been an almost ideal growing season. Despite the rainfall being a little low and the water being a little low, the fruit is sizing up very well. I think the wines are shaping up to be very classic.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Blind tasting vs. aristocracy

Let's talk about aristocracy.

New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov gave me an hour of his time for a Q&A recently. One of his most provocative opinions is his opposition to blind tasting, even though the Times uses it.

Asimov: "I think it's infantilizing. It gives consumers the illusion of a level playing ground. I think we're all very open to the idea that because we're Americans and we're democrats with a small d, aristocracy is a fiction and if everybody is given the same opportunity, then everybody can shine equally ... I think that's a dumbed down way of looking at wine.
I think for evaluating wine, there's a great deal to be learned by knowing what you're dealing with, the history, past performance, past experiences. It seems silly to me that only wine critics are asked to shut their eyes to that."

Asimov strikes at the heart of the modern system of wine evaluation, both the method -- blind tasting -- and the motivation.

Why do we taste blind? Three reasons. One: To discover good wines that we might have otherwise ignored or dismissed. Two: To evaluate wines we have tasted in the past without preconceptions.

Three: Because it's fair.

Monday, August 27, 2012

New fermentation system: closed tank that stores and reuses CO2

The organic vineyards at Salcheto in Montepulciano. The photo's here because tank photos, even of unique tanks, are ugly.

Now that this has been named Best Industry Blog, I guess I'd better earn it.

Salcheto Winery in Montepulciano, Italy has an interesting new fermentation system that co-owner and winemaker Michele Manelli says was developed specifically for them. The goal is softer tannins and more extraction.

Take a look at the tank at right. The two holes lead to separate chambers. On top is a normal closed-tank fermentation system: grapes go in, and as the yeast converts sugar into alcohol, CO2 is created as a byproduct.

What this new system does is collect the CO2 at the top of the tank and pump it to the smaller chamber below, where it is stored until Manelli decides it's time to break up the "cap" of floating grapeskins. Then he releases the CO2 from valves into the main tank, where it bubbles up gently through the cap.

Thanks to reader Joel DeGonia to pointing out that this system has been on sale in Italy for a while. Here's a brochure. Note the industrial size of the tanks in the brochure. The one I saw at Salcheto was probably about 20 feet high. So is this megawinery-designed technology scaled down?

The reuse of CO2 fits neatly with the environmental/technical philosophy of Salcheto, a 15,000 case winery that seems concerned with high-tech sustainability at every step. The vineyards are certified organic. Every part of the winery, even the basement, is lit by natural light brought from the surface through a system of pipes with mirrors in them. There's a thriving green wall of plants on one side of the winery to reduce heating costs. It's an impressive place.

As for the new technique itself, I'm sure there are California wineries that would be interested in a visit. I think it's too early to tell how it will affect the wines. I found the winery's 2009 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano too tannic, which the new system is designed to address. The 2006 "Salco Evoluzione" is quite ripe and seems targeted for fans of big Super Tuscans, but also was held back by oppressive tannins. Presumably this system will advance its, er, evoluzione.

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

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Gray Report wins Best Industry Blog

When this blog was first nominated last year at the Wine Blog Awards for Best Industry Blog, I thought it was a mistake.

I'm not in the industry, I thought. I'm not Wine Business Insider. I'm a generalist. For serious wine business people, I'm a diversion, like Angry Birds without the potential sense of accomplishment.

Yet from the first time Adam Lee and Larry Brooks came here to prove me wrong about something in the comments section, I have always had lots of industry readers.

That's a strength and a weakness.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Eric Asimov Q&A, part II

Eric Asimov. Nice spectacles. Too bad they aren't red.
This is Part II of a Q&A with New York Times Wine Critic Eric Asimov. Part I is here.

You were a New York Times guy before you were a wine guy. Does the Times culture affect how you think about wine?

That's a hard question to answer. I've been at the Times more than half of my lifetime, so I've absorbed most of its culture. Of course, its culture has changed a lot in the last 10 years, more than in the previous few decades.

As a Times person, you have to be aware of the reach of the newspaper and of being a representative of that paper. We have very well thought-out rules about ethics and about proper rules for journalism. You have to adhere to those rules. I think I can do that instinctively. But we're all constantly reminded of them.
I believe in the Times' rules and I think they give us a lot of credibility.

What are the Times' rules?

We don't accept free rides. Any restaurant we go to, I pay the bill. I buy the wine that I taste for our wine panel. Every trip that we take, we pay for.

In one sense, I miss out because I'm never going to go on the junkets to Georgia. I haven't been to Australia and Georgia and Chile because I need to come up with a journalistic rationale that fits in our budget and I haven't done it yet.

More than that, you can't just say things that have no basis in fact. I see a lot of blogs with no responsibility to back up what they're saying. At the Times, we're bound to.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Wine list idea: Distance from restaurant

Check out this wine list from Red Feather Lounge in Boise, Idaho. Each wine lists the distance between the winery and the restaurant.

It's easy to get this information from Google Directions in a couple of clicks. Many restaurants brag about how local their produce is, but then present a list of wines from halfway around the world. Yet isn't wine the apex of agriculture?

Incidentally, I loved the Split Rail Mourvedre, the best wine I had at Red Feather and one of the best I had in the state. The Snake River Chardonnay and Koenig Syrah were also good. I didn't drink anything at this restaurant from further than 31 miles away.

What do you think: Is this information you want?

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

Monday, August 20, 2012

Persevering through 4 owners to become winemaker at Idaho's Ste Chappelle

Maurine Johnson
My column this month for Palate Press is about Idaho, where an exciting wine scene has flowered in the last decade. Nobody has a better perspective on it than Maurine Johnson, who has worked at the state's largest winery, Ste. Chapelle, for 25 years.

Johnson, an Idaho native, has worked under four of the winery's five owners, all of them big companies. She started as a lab technician and "record keeper," spent 13 years as assistant winemaker, and was finally promoted to winemaker just one year before Precept Wines bought the company from the failed Ascentia Wine Estates.

Unlike Ascentia and Constellation, which owned the company before, Precept seems serious about making fine wine in Idaho, so Johnson might have been nervous when the company brought in Napa veteran Bill Murray as head of winemaking. But Murray is concentrating on Idaho's second-largest winery, Sawtooth, as well as Washington's Canoe Ridge, allowing Johnson to do the job she prepared for for so long.

Johnson's memory of the Idaho wine scene is so good that she reminded me of the following scene from the first Muppet Movie in 1979, in which Steve Martin gave Idaho wine an image it would need three decades to recover from:

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Can Antonio Galloni rescue California Syrah's image with a $1000 tasting?

For seven years, Robert Parker has been hosting a $1000 charity tasting of one type of wine at the CIA's Greystone campus. Usually he picks wines you might expect to pay $1000 to taste: California cult Cabernets, Bordeaux first- and second-growths, top wines from the Rhone Valley.

Antonio Galloni has taken over the tasting this year. And look what type of wine he chose:

California Syrah is a butt of many jokes on the wine circuit, especially from people who make and love it. One of my favorites was told to me by Randall Grahm: "How can you tell the difference between a case of Syrah and a case of the crabs? The crabs go away." So it's shocking to see Galloni choose it for the $1000 tasting.

Just on a financial basis, the event usually has 15-20 wines, and if it's California cult cabs, that's 15-20 wines with three-digit prices. How many California Syrahs are that expensive? How many should be?

Galloni will never have the influence Parker did in his prime because the wine world is fragmented with many voices now. But by virtue of being the Advocate's new California critic, he is a subject of fascination for California wineries and has a reservoir of influence to spend. It's an interesting way to spend it.

The event is on Oct. 16. There's also a BYOB dinner that night at Press that costs $1200. If you want to attend, call the CIA at 707-967-2400.

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

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Eric Asimov Q&A, part one

Eric Asimov
Eric Asimov graciously spent an hour on the phone with me talking about his role as the New York Times wine critic. The interview is very long so I'm going to break it into two parts, plus save a little space I would usually use to introduce him by directing you to his Wikipedia page for his background.

Asimov has some very interesting things to say: he hates blind tasting, tasting notes, and the "culture wars" of wine, and says it's not his role to assess what's in the glass. After listening to him for an hour, it's easy to see why he's a great writer; he's thoughtful and eloquent even when I'm keeping him from his dinner. Without further ado, here's the Q&A.

What do you see your role as as the NYT wine critic?
I'm not sure I can sum it up as one role. It's not like I'm constantly thinking of what the role of the critic is.

The New York Times is a general-interest newspaper. It's not a dedicated wine publication like the Spectator or the Wine Advocate. We have a really broad readership that stretches from the novice person looking for basic consumer advice like, "What should I buy on my way home for dinner tonight?" all the way to dedicated wine lovers who spend a lot of their waking hours thinking about wine.

With the Times audience, I am constantly trying to come up with subjects that will be of sufficient interest to attract the general readers, but also thoughtful enough to be interesting to people who spend a lot of time thinking about wine. Sometimes this can happen in the same column. Sometimes it's a question of shifting subject from week to week.

My role, more of a responsibility, is to speak my mind about wines. To offer an honest opinion about wines, the people, the culture, the politics, in an effort to illuminate what's most wonderful and what's interesting about wine.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Another fat bug lands in the wine writing echo chamber

Thank you, New York Post restaurant critic Steve Cuozzo. I don't have to defend your World War II-era point of view on wine lists, because 1) I don't agree with it, and 2) you're clearly fully capable of defending it yourself.

Cuozzo, who last week stirred up the wine world by saying he didn't want to drink Greek wine in Greek restaurants, was back at it this week with a much bigger broadside, opening by attacking the environmental movement. Which I happen to believe in.

So why am I thanking Steve Cuozzo, the man who dared to question the obsession with obscurity on contemporary wine lists, when every other wine writer in the US is figuring out a new way to attack him? When I like "funky stuff" in wine and he doesn't?

Because he fulfilled the primary missions of a columnist, especially one for the New York Post. He was provocative. He was interesting. He got a debate going in the wine world that is still raging.

Most of all, because he disagreed with the groupthink that rules the wine writing echo chamber.

Monday, August 13, 2012

What to eat at San Francisco's Street Food Festival

Azalina Eusope offers some miniature Malaysian Chilaquiles
What: San Francisco Street Food Festival
When: Saturday, Aug. 18, 11 a.m. -- 7 p.m. (also a night market on Friday, Aug. 17)
Where: Mission District, San Francisco
How much?: Admission is free! Food costs what it costs
How essential?: Completely

The Street Food Festival has rapidly become San Francisco's premier public food event. There's not even a close second. Miss this, and you have to wait a year before re-establishing your street food cred.

This is the only place where great restaurants like State Bird Provisions, the Slanted Door and A16 mingle with food cart experts like 4505 Meats and even complete newcomers. Admission is free; you buy the food you eat, which at $3-$8 per dish is not very expensive.

The downside is that with as many as 80,000 attendees expected, even jostling from one side to the other can be tiring. It's better to go early than late, as the most popular booths run out of some dishes (plus, you can go away, digest, and come back). And it's best to have a plan, because even though the dishes aren't huge, you can't queue up for and eat more than 3 or 4 per person.

Here are the best things I ate at the press preview:

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

That's not a wine list, that's a price list

The "bold" red section of Sotto's wine list
I'm too stupid for the wine list at Sotto, a trendy Italian restaurant in Los Angeles. I don't know what Rocca Rubia is, or Syrache, or Il Falcone.

I don't know what they taste like or what foods they go with. I don't know why Syrache is $50 and Il Falcone is $125.

I don't know who makes them. I mean, I see the producer's names. But I don't know if they're biodynamic or fifth-generation vineyard owners or some brand name picked out by a corporate winery to move excess juice. Sotto has Red Car wines; are those related to Red Truck?

Juan Rivera. Not a vintner. Yet.
I can imagine someone commenting, "You don't know who Rivera is? That's one of the biggest names in Apulia. You're supposed to be a wine expert."

Yes, I'm stupid. I spend much of my day reading and thinking about wine, and I had to Google "Rivera" to get that fact. Had I just sat down in front of the wine list, I might have thought it was this Rivera. Or, since the restaurant is in LA, perhaps Juan Rivera.

Evan Dawson, a fine wine writer, wrote a piece for Palate Press this week about corkage, in which he uses Sotto's wine list as an example. Dawson talks to Sotto wine director Jeremy Parzen and learns that "every week, we get people who stop at the Ralph’s Supermarket across the street and buy Kendall Jackson and similar bottles."

Well, no wonder. They know what Kendall-Jackson is.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Dogpatch Wine Works brings make-your-own-wine back to San Francisco

Kevin Doucet
Dogpatch Wine Works co-founder Kevin Doucet takes pains to say his company is not like Crushpad.

It's hard not to compare the two, though. It's the same basic idea: anyone can make their own wine at Dogpatch, with professional assistance. Like Crushpad, Dogpatch started in an industrial area in San Francisco, opening last year in a block-long former canning factory across from a closed PG&E plant.

Both Dogpatch founders worked at Crushpad, and Crushpad's former Head of Winemaking is a consulting winemaker.

But Crushpad was far more ambitious, moving first to Napa and then to Sonoma, and opening a branch in Bordeaux, and that may be what led to its downfall, with an ugly story last week in which clients can't even get their own wine.

Doucet says Dogpatch Wine Works is happy to be in San Francisco, which is far more convenient to wine hobbyists both in the city and in Silicon Valley.

"We got some clients who were disappointed when Crushpad left the city," Doucet said.

Dogpatch's service is similar to what Crushpad started with, albeit with more standardized pricing. People sign a contract to produce at least 1 barrel: 24 cases (288 bottles) of wine. They can participate as much or as little as they like. They can foot-stomp the grapes if they want, or just give consulting winemaker Mike Zitzlaff a wine-style plan.

Prices vary depending on the vineyard source. Dogpatch has 14 choices for the 2012 vintage, ranging in price from $6500 a barrel ($22.57/bottle) for Dry Creek Valley Sangiovese to $10,000/barrel ($34.72/bottle) for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Think Pink: All French rosé dinner at Berkeley's Café Rouge

What: Think Pink XI
Where: Café Rouge, 1782 Fourth St., Berkeley, CA
When: Wednesday, Aug. 8, 5:30-9:30 p.m.
How much: Menu prices (mains $18-$24; wines $7-$13 by glass)
Information: (510) 525-1440

Tables are still available for one of the Bay Area's most fun wine dinners of the year: an all-rosé dinner with serious food and 15 serious French pink wines.

I love how casual this dinner is. There's no set menu; you order (and pay for) what you want. It's Berkeley, so there are plenty of fresh vegetables, but Café Rouge also has an artisan butcher shop. Dishes include "Peaches and crispy guanciale salad with frisée, curly red mustard greens and shallot vinaigrette" ($11) and "Summer cassoulet with confit quail, rabbit boudin and fresh shell beans" ($25). Don't ignore the grass-fed T-bone ($34).

Wine director Barbara Haimes will help you find which of the 15 wines -- all imported by Kermit Lynch -- that best fits your dish and your desire. You might want a light and lovely pink Marsannay made from Pinot Noir, or a weightier Mourvedre pink from the Languedoc.

It's fun just to look around the room and see pink wines on every table.

The wine list is below, ranked roughly from lightest to heaviest.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Westside Drive In, Boise: Stellar food, pink neon

The pink neon sucked me in like a whirlpool. I'm in Boise, Idaho, checking out the emerging wine scene, and the generally young, hip and California-savvy wine people keep recommending restaurants with grilled kale Caesar salads. Which is great, that's what I eat at home, but I want some Idaho flavor.

So, the Westside Drive In. It's on State St., a main drag leading downtown, and because I don't read Rachael Ray I hadn't heard of it. It's famous for a stunt food, a "potato" made of ice cream. It has been around since 1957, when it was converted from a grocery store, and has been pink neon since 1985. I didn't know this when its screaming pinkness called to me: I just knew we don't have hot pink drive-in restaurants in San Francisco.

The menu is surprisingly ambitious: there's a chicken-artichoke heart Caesar salad ($7.50) as a special, and prime rib ($15.95) on Fridays and Saturdays. Chef Lou Aaron cooked at fine restaurants around the country and locally before taking over the drive-in grill in 1994. At one point his menu was so huge that drivers took 15 minutes to read it, so he had to pare back, but you can still sense the ambition: "dip" sandwiches with au jus, tacos, butterscotch malt shakes.

But I want classic drive-in food. Chef Lou makes a patty melt, one of my guilty pleasures, and something I've seen on maybe two menus at home. Done.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

US Charbono vs. Argentine Bonarda

Same grape, different names
As Argentina tries to expand its US market presence beyond Malbec, vintners are naturally looking at Bonarda, the second-most planted grape there.

Currently Argentines drink most of their Bonarda themselves. (Argentines, who have a strong Italian influence, are the biggest wine drinkers in South America.) It makes a gentle red wine with blueberry flavors and softer tannins than Malbec -- sounds good, right? But Malbec is easy to sell to American importers; Bonarda isn't.

Yet Argentine wineries realize they can't fall into the trap Australia has of being known only for one type of cheap red wine. Thus there has been a push for Torrontes, a  nice floral white grape (try the excellent Terrazas de los Andes Reserva Torrontes 2011, $15.)

Still, another red wine would diversify Argentina in the minds of US wine drinkers far more than a white. Hence, wine explorers are being given a chance to taste some Bonarda, so we can tell you all about it.