Thursday, December 5, 2013

9 Great, Fun to Read Wine Books

I'm going to get in trouble for this post. I know a lot of writers who have written wine books, and none of them are on this list.

It's not the top 10 wine books of the year, or the most important wine books. It's just 9 wine books I really enjoyed reading. They'll make good gifts and if you haven't read them, it's about time.

There aren't any general guides to wine. After you know a certain amount about wine, those cease being fun to read. I might give them a favorable review, but I wouldn't dream about being on a long international flight with just that book to keep me company. I do feel that way about all of these books with one exception, which I'll note.

In alphabetical order:

The Billionaire's Vinegar

There's a fascinating cast of characters in this true story of wine counterfeiting. It's not just the forger Hardy Rodenstock; we also spend time with wine expert Michael Broadbent, who certified some of Rodenstock's fakes, and even meet critics like Jancis Robinson who praised them. Broadbent sued publisher Random House for defamation of character in Britain, which has very anti-author libel laws. Random House settled, paid damages, and removed the book from the UK market, but the book was not edited. Movie rights were optioned and Brad Pitt was originally lined up to star, but he walked away and it's still stuck in development. I wonder who he would have played: Rodenstock the counterfeiter? Bill Koch, who finances Tea Party causes when he's not paying to investigate wine fraud? I'd like to see Pitt play a bottle of wine.

The Botanist and the Vintner

A terrific true story of the fight in the 1870s to save wine grapes from the very real threat of being wiped off most of the planet by a new, deadly and apparently unstoppable biological threat. Just figuring out that the culprit was phylloxera was hard enough, because by the time a vine looked dead, the tiny insects had moved on. And then, with a huge cash prize from the French government on offer, scientists raced to figure out its 18-stage life cycle in order to find some way to kill it. You know what? They still haven't. British author Christy Campbell takes you back to those panicked times when people thought fine wine was disappearing forever.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Is Thanksgiving exclusively for American wines? A 50-50 divide, and I'm thankful for that

Last week I took a poll on this question: "Should Thanksgiving be celebrated with only American wines?"

I discovered what appears to be a 50-50 split on the topic.

Now granted, these are my readers, and not the general population of the US. The poll size is actually large enough to project; I've seen Presidential opinion surveys with fewer people polled.

My readership is, as a group, more passionate and knowledgeable about wine than the general US. I'm not sure which way a larger US poll would go. My guess is that it would tilt toward Yes, because my readers know and care more about wine origins, and while 70% of the wine sold in this country is American, I'll bet that percentage is lower for my readers (there's another poll for next year.) But I don't know.

I do know this -- there aren't many 50-50 divides on wine issues. We often have a passionate minority vs. a less interested majority: the 100-point scale, alcohol level, organic and natural wine issues come to mind.

But this is an issue where you don't need to know any science or background or even anything about wine. It's a simple question, and a Yes or No answer. You can fudge it by taking out the word "only," but in that case I think you'll get over 95% Yes answers.

So here's something to be thankful for: a new issue to argue about! About time too; aren't you tired of reading people bickering about the impact of social media on wine sales? Folks, you've got a year to prepare your arguments for the next round in this debate. Let's revisit this next November. In the meantime, hey, how 'bout that 100-point scale?

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

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Paperboy: An exciting paper bottle filled with boring wine

Packaging is important in any industry, but focus too much on it -- either as a producer or consumer -- and you risk not paying enough attention to the contents.

Truett-Hurst winery this month introduced a fantastic new paper wine bottle, sold only at Safeway grocery stores.

It's beautiful, eye-catching, responsible, revolutionary. I love it. I wish I loved the wine in it. But first things first.

Produced by Green Bottle, the bottle is made from 80% used corrugated cardboard, mostly recycled from industrial uses. It's 85% lighter than a glass bottle, so it requires less fuel to ship. The company claims one cross-country truck of Paperboy wine saves 61 gallons of diesel fuel, meaning a lot less CO2 in the atmosphere.

I love the brand name Paperboy, the logo, even the color scheme, all industrial beige with black logo except for a splashy diamond, red or teal, that announces the type of wine.

The bottle is lined with the same sort of plastic bladder as bag-in-box wines, which is great for a while. I don't know how long it will protect the wine from oxidation on the shelf. Bag-in-box wines are generally good for a little less than a year, which can present a problem if they spend too long  getting to consumers; this limits the utility of foreign bag-in-box wines, because you don't know how long they spent on a ship, clearing customs, and sitting in a warehouse. The fact that Paperboy is going only to Safeway should alleviate this problem; a grocery store should know how to deal with shelf life.

I'd love to see a sell-by date right on the paper bottle.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Wine writer fight! Should you drink American wine on Thanksgiving?

What is Thanksgiving? It's a purely American holiday: created here, and not celebrated anywhere else in the world except Canada and Liberia on different days.

But is it still, as the first one was, a celebration not just of friends and family, but of the edible bounty of the land?

To me the answer has always been Yes, and I always drink American wines on Thanksgiving. Not everyone shares that opinion. I had a Twitter debate with New York Times critic Eric Asimov on this issue yesterday.

I'm going to take a poll, because I'd like to know what you think about the issue. And because I know readers love a juicy wine writer fight, I'm going to show screenshots of the tweets.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Proven fact: California and Oregon Pinot Noir can age gracefully

Wynne Peterson-Nedry of Chehalem in Oregon
One knock on West Coast Pinot Noirs has occasionally been that they won't age as well as Burgundy.

Sommelier-at-large Peter Palmer, organizer of PinotFest, put that myth to rest Saturday with a special tasting of 1999 Pinots Noir to mark the 14th anniversary of the event.

Here's why this tasting of just 20 wines proves the point so emphatically:

* The wines weren't cherry-picked. Wineries that had '99s, brought them. Some were expensive on release, but a couple of the most impressive were not.

* The vintage wasn't cherry-picked. Oregon's 1998 was famous and California's was originally infamous, and that might be fascinating to retaste. But Palmer wanted 1999s to mark an occasion, so '99 it was.

I go to retrospective vertical tastings a lot; I love tasting how the same wine changes over time. But those wines are always cherry-picked. The winemaker decides the '84 is drinking better than the five wines around it, so that's the one he brings. A horizontal tasting like this one is far more warts-and-all.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Fall pledge drive: Contribute to The Gray Report

Hey folks, thanks for reading and enjoying The Gray Report.

I was listening to NPR recently and heard them begging for money, and thought, I've been doing this blog for several years and have never really done a post like this. I put the "virtual tip jar" up on the site last year and quite a few people have contributed. But while I've occasionally nudged, mostly in the comments, I've never done an outright begging for money post.

If NPR can, why not me? Granted, they give you more content. But how good is their content on wine?

In case you weren't aware, writing about wine isn't as lucrative as just about any job you can think of. You can't beat the perks, but we make gym teachers' paychecks look like Wall Street wunderkinds'.

Moreover, if you give NPR, say, $50 (feel free to add zeros), you don't know where that money ends up.

Any money you donate to The Gray Report goes directly to me, for use in paying for health insurance and rent and reporter's notebooks.

The Gray Report needs new shoes (true) and a haircut (true). I miss the stylish salon haircuts I got when I had a fulltime job. (I also miss the hand-on-hip harumph from the stylist. Her: "What can we do about this?" Me: "My head is your canvas. Express yourself. But not too short.") I'm sure my wife and friends miss those hairstyles too, but The Gray Report now patronizes a Salvadoran woman who will do my whole head for $12 with scissors, not the electric buzz-cutter, if I remind her in Spanish. If I have to move downmarket to the $6 place, it's buzzcut all the way.

Your donation can keep The Gray Report's hair longer than 1/8 inch from its embarrassingly lumpy scalp.

So please. Give generously. There is no greater pleasure in life than giving to another. And as NPR would say, The Gray Report is made possible by the support, emotional and financial, of readers like you. Thanks in advance for your kindness.

Here's the donation button; it's Paypal, so it should be safe. I will not see your credit-card info.

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

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

New Ballard Canyon AVA considers $30 minimum retail price for Syrah

Rusack Vineyards sits in the center of Ballard Canyon in Santa Barbara County
This is American Syrah's new hope.

In 1987, Ballard Canyon in eastern Santa Barbara County had only three small vineyards, and was best known for a sweet Chardonnay called "Dr.'s Fun Baby."

It still has only about 560 acres of vines; there's a single vineyard in Monterey County with 15 times as much land planted to grapes.

But Ballard Canyon, the newest American Viticultural Area, is the site of an effort to make not just great Syrah, and not just Syrah with identifiable regional character, but a Syrah in a special package that must, by rule, cost more than $30 a bottle.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Is San Francisco Chronicle Food going away? Some perspective

(What's that trophy? Click here)
Last week the New York Times announced that the San Francisco Chronicle will eliminate its Food section. My personal Internet freaked out: it's another sign of the slide to Armageddon for journalism, etc.

Chronicle managing editor Audrey Cooper quickly issued a denial, saying that while Chronicle Food is moving into a new lifestyle section, possibly called Artisan, AND the staff must give up their own building AND the test kitchen is closing and folks can test recipes if they choose in the employee breakroom, the Chronicle still takes food coverage seriously.

I worked at the Chronicle until 2007, so I have some perspective on this. I don't think anybody in the media is getting the story quite right, and they likely won't from this point, because after leaking the story to the Times, the food staff is afraid of reprisals.

So I'm writing this because I think I can explain what is and isn't happening and why, in a way nobody else is going to until there actually are some layoffs and somebody speaks from inside.

Ms. Cooper (who I don't know), I am writing this from Santa Barbara County. I have deliberately avoided contact with any former colleagues at the Chronicle -- no email, no phone calls, no Facebook even -- and I am not planning to cover this as a news story, today or in the future. So don't fire anybody on my account.

First, I believe both the Times story, and Cooper's denial. They're not in conflict on the facts.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

French wine imports to US: Appearance vs. reality

Château de Montifaud, Cognac
Which has the greatest sales by both value and volume in the United States: Champagne, Burgundy or Cognac?

All three are close together in volume, not so much in value. But the answer, in 2012, was Cognac, according to statistics from the French trade commission.

Moreover, Americans spend more money on Cognac than all French AOP still wines combined.

Reading the wine and spirits media, that doesn't seem like it could be true. But the numbers are the the numbers.

The value numbers are particularly striking. Cognac sells just 4% more by volume than Champagne in the US and 31% more by volume than Burgundy. But Americans spend 60% more money on Cognac than Champagne, and three times as much money as on Burgundy.

A few other surprises from the numbers:

* Despite ongoing love from writers and sommeliers, Beaujolais sales continue to slide.

* Americans drank less Champagne in 2012 than the year before, but paid more for it.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

I am the world's best wine writer: The hardware's here!

Holding the hardware
If you're the World's Best Wine Writer, you have to tell people yourself.

I emailed executive food editor Michael Bauer of the San Francisco Chronicle, where I used to work, a few weeks ago to congratulate him for winning Best Newspaper Food Coverage for large newspapers. He thanked me and asked, what have you been up to? I said, well, I was just named world's best online wine writer. He said, really, when did that happen?

So what the heck, I'm going to announce it again. Last week, I received the trophy -- my trophy -- for winning the 2013 Roederer Award for Online Wine Columnist/Blogger of the Year, sent by parcel post from London (possibly aboard the QE2.)

It's not like the Stanley Cup, I don't have to give it back. Unfortunately, unlike the Stanley Cup, I haven't figured out how to drink from it, and please hold your suggestions about what the shape appears to make it suited for. It's hardware, I won it, hurray for me.

What I really need is a crown. Or a sash. Yeah, maybe a sash.

It's too late for the photo to appear on my new World's Best Wine Writer business cards, which I'll be handing out willy-nilly, as I ordered 1,000 of them (there was a Columbus Day sale.) You probably think I'm kidding. Next time you see me, go ahead and ask for my business card. See if I'm kidding.

This is the award Natalie MacLean won when she began calling herself the World's Best Wine Writer. Torch, passed. This is a rare instance where someone can take a line from Natalie instead of the other way around.

In theory, I should have the title until somebody else wins the award in 2014. But MacLean used it long after somebody else won. And I'm not going to complain about that, because did I mention I ordered 1,000 business cards?

It's like a Wine Enthusiast rating for a whiskey: if George Dickel, which is non-vintage, gets 92 points, ever, it can and will advertise itself as being a 92-point whiskey forever. Somebody else might win this award in the future, but I'll always have the hardware, and I am decidedly non-vintage.

By now you may be wondering how the heck I won this thing. Here's one column I submitted; here's another. You might like this column or this news story.

Or maybe it was the glasses? Blue is the new red, now that I'm the World's Best Wine Writer.

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

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Naked Wines founder: Winemakers are underpaid, terroir is overpriced

Not THAT Naked Wines. Courtesy clothing-optional Terra Cotta Inn
Naked Wines is an interesting new model for wine sales, combining social interaction, user funding and winemaker worship -- and diminishing the importance of terroir.

I spoke with Naked Wines founder Rowan Gormley earlier this week about US Sen. Charles Schumer's proposal to let the US postal service ship wine. He's for it; so am I. Not only could it give competition to the arrogant, crappy wine delivery service from FedEx and UPS; it could help the struggling USPS generate revenue.

It's more interesting to chat with Gormley about his website's model for selling wine. Naked is kind of like CellarTracker meets Kickstarter.

Every wine is listed by winemaker. Most  wines list the region the grapes come from, but it's not the major selling point.

And Gormley says that's as it should be.

"The wine industry has made a living out of claiming that, 'This exclusive piece of soil and this microclimate makes these unique flavors'," Gormley says. "The truth is that the most famous regions are overpriced, and the least famous regions don't deserve their discounts. If you go to Lodi and you crop down and use the right amount of oak and time, you can produce a stunning wine. But you'll never get $100 for it because it's Lodi."

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Is there any reason a $7 wine is better than a $2.50 wine?

A reader named Aaron asked this question on an older blog post of mine earlier this week. It's a pretty incisive question.

Aaron was curious about Three Wishes, the $2.50 wine at Whole Foods, as well as Charles Shaw, better known as $2.50 Chuck. Why are they so cheap?

Well, I told him, they're made from mechanically farmed and harvested grapes from productive, reliably warm areas like the San Joaquin Valley. The grapes are rarely touched by human hands because, next to land costs, labor is the biggest expense in making supermarket wine.

Isn't that also true for $7 wines?

What do you get for your extra $4.50? A heavier bottle, a nicer label, and a bigger marketing budget. But do you get a better wine?

I used to do a newspaper Bargain Wines column for which I tasted scores of wines under $10. The overwhelming majority of wines I recommended cost right about $10; occasionally $9. Rarely did I recommend a $7 wine. It's only a $2 jump. But it's a big one.

So I put Aaron's question to you, dear readers: Is there any reason a $7 wine is better than a $2.50 wine?

UPDATE: I got this answer on Twitter from Jeff Siegel, aka The Wine Curmudgeon, author of "The Wine Curmudgeon's Guide to Cheap Wine:"

The cost of the glass and cork might take up as much as 70% of the production cost of the $2.50 wine, leaving little leeway for grapes. Bronco Wine Co., which makes $2.50 Chuck, owns its own grapes, so that gives it an advantage over The Wine Group, which makes Three Wishes. Either way, Jeff says a $7 bottle cost gives producers leeway to acquire better grapes, or perhaps more accurately, grapes that aren't as bad.

Thanks Jeff!

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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Wine and Cognac, not zombies, are the real danger on The Walking Dead

Army medic Bob on The Walking Dead
You wouldn't expect a show on which zombies are stabbed in the head nearly every episode to be a bastion of social conservatism.

But that's just what's up right now on The Walking Dead, and it's significant because it's the  highest-rated TV show with US viewers ages 18-49, amazing considering you have to subscribe to cable, satellite or an online service to get it.

It's a cultural phenomenon that so far hasn't inspired much of the hand-wringing analysis of Breaking Bad, or the shot-by-shot tweets of Mad Men. But those shows, combined, don't equal its audience.

And -- mild SPOILER ALERT -- here's how the program is showing wine and Cognac to be more dangerous than zombies:

Friday, November 1, 2013

Yes, there is and will be a global wine shortage. Here's some perspective on it.

I'm not sure who did a worse job of reporting on Morgan Stanley Australia's report of an upcoming global wine shortage: The mainstream media that initially freaked out, or the wine media that responded, "No there isn't."

I asked Morgan Stanley for the report and they kindly sent it. I read it. I'm not responding emotionally. I just want you to consider the facts.

First of all, a global wine shortage means that there won't be enough wine produced to keep up with worldwide consumption.

It doesn't mean your local wine shop is going to have to ration wine. Nor does it mean prices are going to skyrocket in the US -- although there could be some upward pressure on the bottom of the shelf.

It does mean that poorer countries like Angola and Romania will have a hard time getting wine, because we'll outbid them for it. Sucks for them: Romania drinks more wine, total, than Australia; Angola drinks more wine than New Zealand, and is Portugal's biggest export market. Eventually UK supermarkets will start taking that lowest end wine off Portugal's hands.

In 2012, world wine consumption exceeded world wine production. This was momentous. The OIV says that won't be the case in 2013, despite what appears to be a disastrously small vintage in France, because of big harvests in the southern hemisphere.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

ZAP gets smaller, with half as many people hopefully half as drunk

Joel Peterson has to go to ZAP, but I stopped going a few years back
The world's largest single-variety wine tasting is shrinking, and that's a relief.

At its peak 5 years ago, ZAP attracted 10,000 Zinfandel lovers to San Francisco, where they sampled 16% alcohol Zins without spitting until they were a loud, red-faced, staggering mob.

This year, the organizers hope to cut that crowd in less than half.

Next year, ZAP will not have a single big room of sweaty drunks elbowing their way toward the Ridge and Ravenswood booths. The public tasting is being split into three tracks, each in a smallish room, and each ticket is only good for two hours.

It would be nice to report that ZAP is changing because the ZAP board realized what a horror it had become. The irony is, they did realize it, but that's not why they're changing.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Why I'm happy about healthcare reform

I signed up for a new healthcare plan Monday on the Covered California website. And I'm delighted about it, but not because of the insurance itself.

I'm certainly not excited about the website. It took me hours to navigate, kept breaking down, and because of a typo I didn't notice when I first signed in, it will apparently call me by the wrong name forever. But that's all behind me.

I'm delighted because of something I'm not seeing any major media head talk about:

I'm not afraid of my health insurance company anymore

Maybe you've had the same job for 20 years and your health insurance was never in question. Me, I've had five full-time jobs in the past 15 years. Two of the companies don't exist any more. At the other three, the job I had doesn't exist anymore. It's a tough era to be a writer. Every time I left a job, I was afraid of my health-insurance company.

Once I took a buyout from a job and immediately applied for individual healthcare insurance. I conscientiously listed every doctor visit I'd made over the past five years while on the terrific company plan; have the flu, see the doctor, because the copay is low enough.

I was turned down because I had visited a doctor three times in the previous two years.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Lou Reed and the natural wine movement

Lou Reed was not the kind of guy to support natural wines. He was a longtime chain smoker, abused a lot of drugs before that, and before the natural wine movement really got underway, he had to give up drinking because his liver was in such bad shape.

And Lou was a dark cynic. When most '60s beautiful people were talking about going back to mother Earth, he was talking about tasting the boot of shiny, shiny leather.

But I was sitting in yoga yesterday -- how non-Velvet Underground -- thinking about Lou Reed and the natural wine movement.

The connection is a quote from Brian Eno, who says the first Velvet Underground record sold only 30,000 copies, but those 30,000 buyers formed bands.

Journalists at the time who bothered to notice the band weren't fans. They rightly pointed out the lousy sound quality of the production, for which Andy Warhol took the credit. The kind of discordant noise that Velvet Underground made wasn't fit for popular consumption either: a DJ playing "White Light White Heat" on the air would get calls complaining that there was something wrong with the transmitter.

Forget the lyrics, forget the subject matter. The music sounded flawed. Few people heard it, and most of those who did, hated it; it was challenging and not entirely pleasant. How could it ever be popular?

Seeing the parallel yet?

Thursday, October 24, 2013

What steakhouse patrons want in a wine

But is it Cabernet? From "Cougar Town"
Yesterday I was tasting some Madirans, made with Tannat, with a group of sommeliers. One from a major steakhouse said, "My clientele doesn't like wines with tannic structure."

I ... was ... shocked. When and where else would you want to drink a tannic red wine? So I asked, what do they want?

He said, "They want big wines, no tannins, based on Cabernet, and under $100."

This from a place where the cheapest steak is $42. And the steaks come with no sides; those average $11 each. But forget the price: think about that description. Sounds like what they really want is a Grenache/Syrah blend, but they want it to be called Cabernet.

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

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Drinking alcohol with a headcold: Highly recommended

I just spent a week in Jerez, Spain with a mild headcold: sore throat, slight fever. Not the flu. Not enough to keep me from all the wineries and all the meals.

I took ibuprofen in the mornings for the sore throat, and acetaminophen in the evenings (pro tip: it doesn't upset your stomach, making it a better painkiller when you're drinking, though it doesn't fight inflammation).

But my best painkiller was Sherry. I felt rundown every morning until we got to a winery, and I got some of that 15% alcohol Fino in me. Then I started feeling better. When we drank buckets of Manzanilla in the evening, I felt great!

This is something your doctor won't tell you, because doctors in the US are afraid to say anything good about alcohol. Of course alcohol is not bad for you when you're sick: most cough syrups and other liquid medications are alcohol-based, which is why true alcoholics have a hard time with headcolds.

You need to drink enough water so that you don't get dehydrated. I went through 12 personal 1.5-liter bottles in six days, not counting all the water I drank at restaurants.

Alcohol simply made me feel better. Unless you have stomach symptoms, I highly recommend it. There's a reason that most patent medicines of the 1800s had a lot of alcohol in them: it works.

Not many people with headcolds can drink in the morning, every morning, like The World's Best Wine Blogger (Roederer Award, 2013) visiting a wine region. But if you can, you should -- you'll feel better.

As for nighttime, you should up the dosage, so you can get to sleep. Here's my best nighttime cold remedy. Keep some lemons and honey around for flu season:
2-3 oz Bourbon or brandy (rum will do)
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tbsp honey
Boiled water
Fresh mint (optional)

Pour lemon, honey and booze in a large mug. Fill with hot water. Drink 'er up. If one of these is insufficient, you're not using enough booze.

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

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Endorsements for the 2013 San Francisco election

One of the USA's biggest problems is that we don't talk enough about political issues. We talk politics like we argue about sports. Democrats-Republicans is like Giants-Dodgers: you pick a side and root blindly for it, even when your guys are jerks and the other side is right.

I am committed to offering election endorsements on this blog for each election. I wish all bloggers would do so. More information and more opinions make for a more informed voter.

This is especially necessary in a city where the local daily newspaper, my former employer the San Francisco Chronicle, is so lax about the traditional journalistic responsibility of covering elections. This year, you can find online a Chronicle editorial offering endorsements in the four races where a candidate runs unopposed, but its editorials on the complex, controversial Propositions B & C -- the most important items on the ballot -- are available only to print subscribers. Thanks a lot, Chronicle, some citizen you are. Joseph Pulitzer should come back as a zombie to bitch-slap and then feast on whoever is responsible for that decision.

I got much of my information for these endorsements from the San Francisco Bay Guardian, which is significantly to my left politically, but even after ownership changes has admirably put in the most work on the election, as always. I also drew on the new and promising site Ballotpedia, and grazed on a few other things I saw online.

Politically, I am an independent thinker and a Florida Democrat. That's where I first registered a party affiliation, and that's still a good description. I tend to vote most liberally on national elections, less so on state elections, and San Francisco elections usually find me standing on the right. But not this year. So without further ado:

San Francisco 2013 election endorsements

Proposition A: Retiree Health Care Fund
Vote YES

Practically everybody who's anybody in San Francisco politics wants to see this measure passed: both the Democratic and Republican parties, every major publication, the mayor and the board of supervisors. Yet my first inclination was to vote No.

The bill is intended to supplement a proposition that passed 5 years ago to make the city's retiree health-care fund solvent by 2045, restricting access to the funds in the meantime. Retiree commitments are what have driven some cities to bankruptcy, and San Francisco has long been overly generous with benefits to city employees, so it's an important issue.

The Libertarian Party of San Francisco makes a good argument against Prop A, saying it might make funding retiree benefits more important than providing city services.

What swayed me to the Yes side was the fact that the SEIU, which just paralyzed the Bay Area with the BART strike because they want to hold onto antiquated work rules, opposes it with this official logic: "The overall sense is that we don't want to deal with the question of benefits with the wider public. We want to be able to bargain over them."

Fuck that. Vote Yes on A.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The most horrifying article about wine in 2013

It's the "Audition" of wine articles
I like horror movies, but I prefer ones with a low-body count, so the occasional moments of gore are more horrible. Some scenes stay with you for weeks afterward: the bucket of blood in the original "Carrie," the needles from "Audition," the backwards bend in "Paranormal Activity 3."

Reading "3 Reasons Why Wine Tasting Can Help Your Career" from hits the same part of the brain as these horror classics. I'm appalled, terrified, a little nauseated -- but I can't look away, I can't stop thinking about it, and even though I know it's horrible, I want to go back and look at it all over again.

What's more, the horror in this article is tremendously effective in a short time. Even the scariest short films take a few minutes to establish the terror. This story has only 372 words, and yet I can easily list its Top 5 Horrifying Sentences about Wine:
5. In honor of that, I present you with three compelling reasons why learning to love wine can help give your career a leg up.
(Because that's the only possible explanation for starting to drink wine.)
4. Not only was the (wine tasting) club a fantastic social outlet during school, but this carried forward after graduation as a way to get together, network and most importantly share job leads.
(Italics mine. Who joins wine tasting clubs for the wine? Silly rabbit. Did you think book clubs are about the books?)
3. This way, when you are asked if you have any favorite wines, you can answer with an actual vineyard rather than saying something completely generic like “I usually order Pinot Grigio.”
(This after the reasonably savvy advice of taking a smartphone picture of a bottle of wine you like -- and memorizing it. Sort of like trying to get into a classical music fan's pants by learning the names of a few composers.)
2. If you can convince a senior-level person (either within or outside your organization) that you know how to detect hints of oak and vanilla in your wine, you can convince a client to buy what you’re selling.
(Holy crap. You mean all I have to do to become a Senior Vice President is bring overly oaked wine on sales calls? No wonder the economy sucks.)

And if you think that's horrifying, here's the sentence before it:

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

How Tito's Handmade Vodka got on the world's largest airline

Tito Beveridge: A man and his vodka
If you fly United Airlines, you're not alone in your misery: since swallowing Continental, it's the world's largest airline. One would think placing a product on board would be great for two reasons: the brand would make money, and would be shown every day to a huge captive audience.

Vodka is easily America's favorite spirit. United used to serve Absolut vodka.

Earlier this year, Absolut told the airline, we don't want to make those little bottles anymore. Too much trouble. So Absolut walked away from the contract.

Doug Frost, the MW who oversees United's wine and spirits program, told this story with astonishment. United offered to pay more; Absolut wasn't interested. The Swedish vodka maker simply didn't want to deal with miniatures. Seems insane.

Frost considered Finlandia and Skyy as replacements, but picked Tito's Handmade Vodka because he says he wanted something a little edgier.

So now, while vodka is usually the least interesting spirit on any drink list, with apologies to Bombay Sapphire gin, vodka is the most interesting spirit on United.

Tito needs to learn how to say, "Thank you very much!" in Swedish.

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

Thursday, October 10, 2013

How much should you tip on corkage?

When a corkage fee -- what you pay to bring your own bottle of wine to a restaurant -- is small, tipping on it isn't an issue. Presumably the restaurant pockets the fee, so if the fee is $10, paying a server $1.50 or $2 to open a bottle isn't a big deal.

But in many big-city restaurants, corkage fees have ratcheted up to the point where it makes this an issue worth considering. You brought your own wine, and you're paying the restaurant to open it -- perhaps $35 a bottle -- in theory to make up for the restaurant's lost revenue. How much should you pay the person wielding the corkscrew? Is a few turns of a screw worth $7?

Sometimes the tip depends on how much service the restaurant gives you; if a server constantly refills your glasses, you should tip as on any other item. In my experience, though, most people who bring their own wine prefer to pour it themselves.

What do you think? Let's take a poll and find out.

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Monday, October 7, 2013

Your name is Kevin or Jennifer? No French wine for you

Put a shirt on, Kevin
If your name is Richard or Jean-Charles, then perhaps a French chateau will pour you its 1966 vintage.

But if your name is Kevin or Jennifer or Jessica, it's all second-label bulk wine for you. And maybe they'll lock up the silverware.

There's a subset of French people who give their children very American names, and the extremely class-conscious French believe that such parents are not from the right part of town.

"Kevin" surged in popularity with French baby mommas in 1990, when Kevin Costner was Dancing With Wolves.

I can't find it online (help me out here, French readers), but Several French vintners told me a study showed that Kevins had the lowest baccalauréat graduation rate of anyone in the country.

UPDATE: Reader Paul passes along this article from Slate in French, which has a chart. Click to enlarge it. Turns out "Sabrina" has the worst graduation rate in France, and "Jordan" is slightly worse than "Kevin," but neither of them are as common, which may explain the stigma.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Big-name California Cabernet-blend blind tasting: Harlan, Insignia, Opus One. Who wins?

This was the kind of tasting Robert Mondavi used to host: his wine, blind, against the first-growths of Bordeaux.

It's too expensive today to hold that kind of tasting to prove yourself. Trying to prove the worth of his Livermore Valley Cabernet-based blend Lineage ($145), Steven Kent Mirassou last week put the 2009 up against 2009s from some of the big names of California: Harlan Estate ($800), Opus One ($230), Joseph Phelps Insignia ($150), and Continuum ($175), as well as a random Saint-Estèphe a PR person had sitting around (true), Château Cos Labory ($50).

I know what you're expecting me to write, and certainly what Mirassou was hoping for: Lineage smoked 'em. Unfortunately, considering the money he laid out for this tasting, that didn't happen.

There were four other wine writers there, and Mirassou and his experienced PR rep/wine educator Paul Wagner also tasted with us, and we all, unanimously, liked ...

Friday, September 27, 2013

True or false: Most California Chardonnays taste like malo

I got into a Twitter brawl with Travel & Leisure Wine Editor Bruce Schoenfeld yesterday. The issue was "malo" -- malolactic fermentation -- in California Chardonnays.

Schoenfeld's point was that more than 90% of California Chardonnays taste like "malo," which generally tastes buttery in wine.

I disagreed.

Moreover, the argument is off-base, as Katherine Cole pointed out. I have had bracingly taut Chardonnays from Chablis, Oregon and the coastal Sonoma Coast that went through 100% malolactic fermentation, but the acid was so high you'd never guess if you didn't read the tech sheet.

Malo is not the enemy. Moreover, California Chardonnay has adapted: fruit is in, butter is out. At least, that's how it seems to me.

So I wonder, how widespread is the belief that California Chardonnay is mostly malo?

So I'm going to do two things here. One, I'm going to take a poll. Let's see what most of my readers believe.

Second, I'm going to ask California Chardonnay makers who do NOT use any malolactic fermentation to say that in the comments.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Does size matter when it comes to wine? A conversation with a reader

People occasionally email me with questions on The Gray Report Facebook page, and I try to answer them if I can. I got this one out of the blue last week. I've erased the questioner's name.

That's the end of the conversation. How would you have answered?

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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Bols Yogurt Liqueur: A rare thing, a truly new idea that's delicious

Bols Yogurt Liqueur was released a couple months ago and everybody from Bon Appetit to Maxim likes it.

No wonder. This is something different from anything you've had before, and how often can you say that? And it's delicious.

You might be thinking, yogurt liqueur? Yogurt??!! You might think with excess punctuation; sometimes I do.

Imagine a drinkable yogurt, on the sweet side, but with that distinctive tartness that keeps it balanced. Its only 15% alcohol, and you can't really taste the alcohol on the front of the tongue, although it does leave an impression on the back. I can imagine drinking this for breakfast, and that would probably put me in a much better mood.

Perhaps it will be used to make boozy smoothies. It might be interesting to mix with a fruit liqueur like Chambord. Or check out the cream soda recipes below (though I would use soda water instead of 7Up).

But I find it delicious by itself on the rocks, as a dessert drink, especially after spicy food. I don't know if it's settling my stomach like yogurt, but it does relax the mind.

The liqueur was originally launched in China because of a demand for a milk-based spirit, which surprises me because so many Chinese are lactose-intolerant.

It may have been created with marketing in mind, but kudos to the Bols engineers because they took a wacky-sounding idea and made a perfectly self-contained product. People have been trying to make chocolate liqueurs for decades, but I've never had a good one. Maybe that's because chocolate liqueur makers overcommit to sweetness, while the yogurt liqueur must have balance.

Bols Yogurt Liqueur is only $18 a bottle and widely available. If you like yogurt -- who doesn't? -- give it a try.

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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

What's your favorite wine?

When I tell people I write about wine, this is usually their first question. "What's your favorite wine?"

I have been asked this question approximately 65,000 times and counting. Sometimes the person just wants to make conversation. But very often, the person asking it really hopes to learn something about wine from an expert they just happened to sit next to on an airplane or stand behind in a checkout line.

And I still have no good answer.

There's the smartass: "Whatever is in front of me." That doesn't tell the wine novice anything.

The serious: "I like a lot of different wines. I drink something different every night." It's accurate. It's also boring and unhelpful.

The idealist: "I like wines that are products of terroir/passion/individuality." Also true. Also a bit boring, and helpful only if we have 5 minutes to talk rather than 30 seconds.

The off-the-cuff: "I'm drinking a lot of Oregon Chardonnay/German Riesling/Santa Barbara Syrah/whatever lately." Sometimes I think this is the best answer because it says something. And if I am actually drinking a lot of one type of wine lately, it's accurate. Problem is, it's rarely true.

The last-night: "Last night I had a delicious Sonoma County Sauvignon Blanc/Languedoc Grenache/Washington Cabernet Sauvignon." This is answering the question I wish they'd asked, rather than what they actually asked. But I do use this one a lot.

So, readers and friends, most of you are wine lovers too. You must get asked this question. How do you answer it?

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

Monday, September 16, 2013

Hudson Whiskey: The accidental distiller who can't drink

Ralph Erenzo
Hudson Whiskey has more irony than age.

It was founded in 2006 by a guy who wanted to create a rock-climbing gym, but was stymied by his NIMBY neighbors, who didn't want climbing tourists around. So what did they get? Drinking tourists. Haha, take that, NIMBYs.

Hudson's creators had no idea how to make whiskey, so they just stumbled along production-wise, put the results in pretty bottles, overcharged for them and saw the brand gain high-end cachet.

And perhaps most ironic of all, founder Ralph Erenzo, who sold the Hudson Whiskey brand to the liquor giant William Grant & Sons but still owns and operates the Tuthilltown Spirits distillery that makes it, can't drink. At all. Probably forever.

"My kidneys stopped working for a month," Erenzo says, after a one-car traffic accident he doesn't even remember put him in a coma. "When I started peeing again, it was a big party on the (intensive care) floor. I spent three months in intensive care, had 21 surgeries. I'm missing three ribs."

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

I'm the Online Wine Columnist/Blogger of the Year! Here's my acceptance speech

On Tuesday, I won the Roederer Award for Online Wine Columnist/Blogger of the Year. I wasn't able to attend the ceremony in London, so I'll give my speech here.

Thank you so much for the great honor, and especially for the magnum of Champagne, which I
will try to drink as much of as I can look forward to sharing with my friends. This culminates what has been a good year for me, and for wine writing on the Internet as well.

I've had the pleasure of writing regularly for three great websites: Palate Press, Wine Review Online and Wine-Searcher, as well as this blog, The Gray Report. I want to thank each of them (and me?) for giving me the opportunity. I also wrote for quite a few print publications, but this is the first year as a freelancer I've ever made as much money writing online as in print.

As a freelance writer, I am at the bottom of the trickle-down economy. Things were tough five years ago, as print publications cut back on their food sections and freelancer budgets. This award notwithstanding, I don't think it's because of any special qualities of mine that I'm getting more, better paying work lately. It's a reflection of the improving health of the information industry.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Oregon winemaker takes the cat pee -- and the cat -- out of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc

Ever wonder how the aroma of "cat pee" gets into some Sauvignon Blanc? Peter Rosback blames machine harvesting.

Rosback owns Sineann winery in Oregon, but he actually makes 20% of his wine in New Zealand. He started making a Sauvignon Blanc in Marlborough in 2007 and it's now his most popular wine. It's delicious, and he says the difference is that his grapes are hand-harvested, which is unusual in the region.

It's also safer for vineyard pets.

"Four years ago, a dead cat came through the destemmer," Rosback says. "Machine harvesters, they just shake everything off the vines. Anything that's up in there goes into the machine. I told a friend about finding the cat, and he said, 'You should see some of the stuff we've found'."

Yikes: what could be worse? That said, the grassiness -- much nicer description -- of some  Sauvignon Blancs isn't due to actual grass being crushed with the grapes. It's due to phenolic chemical compounds that Rosback says are likely to taste more powerful in a machine-harvested wine.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Loam Baby does Napa, to the sound of California Über Alles

I thought I was the only one who, when driving through Napa Valley, sometimes hears "California Über Alles" in my head.

Thanks to the fine wine fanzine Loam Baby, now I know I share this thought with Steve Matthiasson, one of my favorite white winemakers in Napa.

Matthiasson says of St. Helena, "It's so damn successful and perfect that I need to listen to punk rock when I'm driving through to balance myself out." Matthiasson's St. Helena playlist also includes Black Flag's "American Waste" and Minor Threat's "Out of Step (With the World)."

The winemaker's playlist is only one of the unusual features in Loam Baby, which is not like any other wine publication currently on the market.

Friday, September 6, 2013

France over Argentina: My readers vs. wine sales

See the full results here
Last month I ran a poll asking my readers what countries make their favorite wine. Readers could pick three countries, to reflect the idea that most of us have more than one favorite.

The results, compared to US and world wine sales, are strikingly different.

My audience is about 60% in the US, so you'd expect the poll to mirror American tastes to some extent. But as with any wine blog, I have a readership that is pretty engaged in the wine world; y'all are not just grabbing something at the supermarket at random. So I wasn't surprised by the winners. What did surprise me was one country that didn't get many votes.

France dominated my poll, with 27% of readers, ahead of the US with 23% and Italy with 16%. This was predictable: France and Italy are the world's leading exporters of great wines, and I have 60% American readers. If I voted in my own poll, I would probably have picked these three.

However, France is only the 5th-largest source of imported wine in the US. The hottest country is Argentina, 3rd overall and 1st if you eliminate the top 25 brands.

Argentina finished last of the 12 countries listed in my poll, with less than 1% of the vote. I had a few write-ins for Austria and I wonder if it would also have beaten Argentina had I listed it as an option.

This was not an anti-South American statement. Chile got three times as many votes as Argentina and finished ahead of Greece, for which I have a soft spot. This was an anti-Argentina statement.

My guess is that highly involved wine lovers are not Argentine wine lovers. But still, you'd think some of that Malbec affection would have made its way to the blogosphere. Or is Argentinian wine the everyday stuff you drink while you wait for the wine you love to come along?

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Thursday, September 5, 2013

The UC Davis wine price challenge

UC Davis senior winemaking classes hold an interesting challenge at the end of four years of study -- and no student has gotten it right yet.

Dr. Hildegard Heymann of UC Davis' Viticulture and Enology Department told me that every year, she asks students to taste six wines blind and link them with their actual retail prices.

The prices are distinctly different, such as $5, $10, $25, $50, $100 and $200. There's a bottle of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild waiting for the student who gets them all right.

Fortunately Lafite-Rothschild improves with age, because no student has won it yet, in nearly a decade of trying. Heymann said the best anyone has ever done was to correctly choose the cheapest and most expensive wines.

These not consumers or wine bloggers; these are students who have been intensely studying wine for four years and are about to go out and become leaders of the industry. They know all the tricks and traps of sensory evaluation. Yet they blow it anyway.

"The mistake most of them make is in ranking by their personal taste," Heymann said.

How hard can this be? I want to take a shot at it. I believe I can tell the price category by the quality and intensity of the oak flavor, especially in the top-end wines. But I guess I'm just setting myself up for failure.

Do any readers remember being humbled by this or a similar blind-tasting challenge?

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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Peer pressure brings wine scores toward the middle

I had the pleasure of judging wine last week at Mundus Vini, Germany's leading wine competition. My panel tasted 150 wines in three days and gave zero (0) gold medals.

As is often the case with wine competition results, one of the culprits was human behavior.

People occasionally complain that the so-called 100-point scale for wine critics is actually about a 15-point scale for publications, as the Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator rarely publish ratings below 85.

In wine competitions, the scale is a little wider, but it's still more limited than you'd expect from looking at the scoresheet. Scores below 70 are rare, but so are scores above 95, which is why Grand Gold medals rarely happen in Europe without statistical help.

I always try to follow the written rules of wine competitions: to score each wine on each attribute where it belongs. But there are unwritten rules also, and the chart below will show you that it didn't take me very long to learn and follow them -- even though I don't necessarily agree with them.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Throw out the top 25 brands, and guess what country is the US' biggest source of wine?

Data courtesy U.S. Beverage Alcohol Forum
Americans are very brand-oriented when it comes to wine. But what do we drink when we're not buying one of the big names?

I noticed recently that even without Yellow Tail, Australia still ranks in the top 6 sources of foreign wine. Today I decided to crunch the numbers a little further.

What if I took all of the top 25 brands out of the wine import numbers? Who are our largest sources of wine then?

The implication is that these countries are selling us a lot of small-production wine, perhaps artisanal. So who do you think it is? You might be surprised.

First, here are our 8 largest sources of imported wine, all brands included (numbers in gallons).

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Make sashimi at home: it's easy

We eat sashimi at home all the time. I discovered in talking to some friends that this is unusual, even among sashimi fans. People pay a fortune for a few slices of fish in a restaurant or sushi shop when you can spend about $25 for more fish than two people can eat.

Sashimi with a bowl of rice is one of the easiest and most delicious meals you can make. Here's a quick pictorial explanation.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Oregon vineyard land rush is also a statement of confidence in the US economy

"Better put out more chairs, investment bankers are coming." Stoller Family Estate, Dundee Hills, Oregon
Oregon is suddenly the belle of the wine ball. A year ago the image was of enlightened hippies earnestly struggling to farm in sync with Mother Nature, with no wineries bigger than 175,000-cases King Estate. This week, it's all neckties, bankers and mortgage rates.

* Maison Louis Jadot just bought a 20-acre vineyard in the Yamhill-Carlton district, its first purchase outside Burgundy. Jacques Lardiere, who worked at Jadot for 42 years, will move to Oregon to be the winemaker, a stunning adjustment for a guy who retired earlier this year.

* Earlier this week, Jackson Family Wines (the Kendall-Jackson folks) bought a 15,000 case winery, also in Yamhill-Carlton. This will help them make wine for the La Crema brand from the 280 acres of vineyards they bought in the spring.

* Bacchus Capital Management, a California private equity fund, bought all or part of two Oregon wineries earlier this year. Bacchus' co-founder is Sam Bronfman, formerly of Seagram's and Diageo.

Why the sudden land rush for Oregon vineyards? It's really simple. Look at this chart, from January:

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Napa County wineries should not be allowed to wiggle around county law

Andy Beckstoffer is right, and the Napa Valley Planning Commission is wrong. Napa Valley wineries should not be able to wiggle around the county's laws to make more wine from Central Valley fruit.

The Napa Valley Register covered this issue last week and editorialized about it on Sunday. It's right for the Register to suspect Beckstoffer of advancing his own interests by opposing a production expansion by his neighbor, Jean-Charles Boisset, who bought Raymond in 2009.

But the Register needs to step back and take a clear stand. I'm not sure what exactly its editorial advocates, but I know what I think.

Some Napa wineries are trying to skirt the law, the planning commission is misinterpreting the law rather than enforcing it, and it should stop.

Here are the details.

Napa Valley wine should be made from Napa Valley grapes. That's basic.

The question before the Napa County Planning Commission is, how much non-Napa wine should it allow to be made in Napa Valley?

In the great wine regions of Europe, the answer would be "none." But in most of the USA, the answer is "a limitless ocean."

But this is Napa County we're talking about, and the laws are different there.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Australian wine is greater than the US wine press admits

Why won't US media take me seriously?
First, let me give you a number: Australia is the second-largest exporter of wine to the US, behind only Italy. We buy more Australian wine than wine from France and Spain combined.

So why don't you read much about Australian wine?

Part of that is the domination of Yellow Tail, which accounts for 38% of Australia's exports here.

That's a lot, but we're still unduly ignoring the rest of the country. Take away Yellow Tail from Australia and it would still be our 4th largest source of foreign wine, still ahead of France and Spain.

I can't explain why the wine media is so out of sync with the US drinking public. My guess is that media is trend-driven, and Australia's not trendy. What it takes to start a trend, I don't know.

But I will share a little meta-post about my own efforts.

A few years after Yellow Tail took the US by storm, and not coincidentally Australian fine wine sales  dropped, I tried to sell several magazines and newspapers a story about the good wines from Australia.

Friday, August 16, 2013

What country makes your favorite wine?

I wanted to replicate the open-ended Family Feud-style question I saw last week, "What is your favorite wine?" but haven't figured out how to do it technologically. So here's a little poll to play with in the meantime.

I'm curious about the results because I know I have a fairly sizable international readership as well as a very wine-savvy readership.

I've phrased the question with a singular object, "your favorite wine," BUT you're allowed to pick three. This might seem like a conflict, but it reflects my own experience. I would have a hard time picking one single wine as my favorite, but if you let me choose three, that would be fun. Thanks for playing.

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

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Wine Spectator supports GMO grapevines made with human and insect DNA

How would you like to drink wine made from a grapevine that contained human and insect DNA?

Wine Spectator thinks this is a great idea. And if you disagree, you're just a loudmouth in a mob.

This is so extreme, right wing even for the Tea Party, that you might think I'm making it up, or it's a new David Cronenberg movie.

A post that ran yesterday on Wine Spectator by Mitch Frank makes this argument: some unknown wine disease might one day threaten grapevines, and therefore we better start genetically modifying grapevines to prepare for it.

Here's one Spectator pro-GMO argument:
"Would GMO vines be vastly different than the vines we have produced by spending centuries selecting our favorite vines, cutting off branches and propagating them? Man has fundamentally shaped the evolution of the Vitis vinifera we treasure today."

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Top picks at the 2013 San Francisco Street Food Festival

Alicia Villaneuva's tamales are the best you've never had
What: San Francisco Street Food Festival
When: Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Where: Mission District (exact map is here)
Cost: Admission free, food $3-$8

The Street Food Festival remains San Francisco's greatest food event.

Where else can you eat try Central Kitchen, State Bird Provisions and President Obama's favorite Malaysian food in the same hour?

Entry is free. Crowds are large, so come early And no wonder: the festival has perhaps the greatest one-day collection of small-bite food in California. Combine the mastery of La Cocina's top street vendors with high-end chefs concentrating on producing just two items each, and you've got more exciting food than anybody could eat.

Two food lists here. First, here are my favorites from the recent media preview:

Alicia's Tamales Los Mayas
Alicia Villaneuva's Oaxacan cheese tamale, with mild pepper slices, was my favorite item from the preview. If you haven't had one of her tamales from her tiny food cart yet, it's about time.

Monday, August 12, 2013

What are San Francisco Giants fans' favorite types of wine? Survey says ...

How Family Feud works
The San Francisco Giants play a Family Feud-type game with fans at home games, in which a single fan has 60 seconds to guess all the top answers to a question. It's often based on an advertiser, resulting in some stupid questions like, "What are the best things about flying Virgin America?" (No. 1 answer: "Mood lighting." From a Virgin? That's cockpit tease.)

On Friday, the question was interesting. San Francisco is probably the most wine-savvy city in the United States, and it's the capital of California wine country. So what would 100 Giants' fans say when asked,

"What is your Favorite Type of Wine?"

I'll give you a chance to play along. There are 5 answers and you have 60 seconds. The answers are after the jump.

Survey says:

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Bunnahabhain Toiteach: Great Scotch with foggy origin story

I'm drinking up my liquor cabinet as fast as I can since learning the horrifying fact that liquor will not last indefinitely in an open bottle. So I came upon this bottle of Bunnahabhain Toiteach Scotch whisky, which I received as a sample last year and never got around to writing about.

Why? Here's the entire conversation I had about it with the importer:
Me: "You sent me a sample of the Toiteach and I like it. What more can you tell me about it?"
Importer: "Retails for $79.99. Here is all our information."
Not so much, right? I'll save you from clicking on the sell sheet. The distillery was founded in 1881. Although Bunnahabhain is in Islay, most of its Scotches are not peaty; in fact that's what the distillery is most famous for among aficionados. But this one is. "Toiteach" is pronounced "toe-check" -- sounds like a Scotch for hockey fans -- and means "smokey" in Gaelic. It's un-chill-filtered, 12-years old, bottled at 46% alcohol, with no added color.

It's also delicious; it was one of those bottles that I drank really quickly until deciding I would save the last swallow for a special occasion. When I learned it wouldn't last forever, I decided Sunday night was a special occasion.

For me this has the perfect blend of Islay flavors: smokiness, sure, but not to the exclusion of milk chocolate notes and some orange peel, with fine freshness that makes the glass, and the bottle, empty faster than expected.

Some of my open bottles of Scotch are going to be shaken up with sweet Vermouth to make Rob Roys -- gotta clear out that liquor cabinet -- but this one I had in a whisky glass with two lumps of ice. Don't gasp, that's how they drink it in Scotland.

Order it here, for less than list price.

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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Gallup drinking preference poll is misleading: Beer still far outsells wine

Gallup released its annual poll of American drinking habits this week, and it's more good news for wine: Americans are about as likely to say they drink wine as beer.

Americans are full of shit. I'll show you.

First, here's the Gallup preference chart

It's interesting data: Gallup has been asking people some of the same questions since World War II. As you can see, 47% of Americans said beer was their favorite alcoholic beverage in 1992, and only 27% chose wine. Now it's nearly tied, 36-35.

Except it's not. The above is what Americans say when pollsters ask them what they like. Below is what they actually buy.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Climate change scientist: Washington, New Zealand are winners; Australia, Calistoga are losers

Antonio Busalacchi
Antonio Busalacchi is an unusual combination: he's a professor of atmospheric and oceanic science at University of Maryland. And he's also a wine educator who holds an advanced sommelier certificate.

Earlier this week, he released a climate study of 24 major world wine regions that, he says, "went beyond the normal simple measures of mean temperature and precipitation but also evaluated growing degree days, drought severity index, extreme temperature thresholds at which photosynthesis shuts down, latitude temperature indices, and disease pressure indices."

I called him in Orlando, Florida, where he had just finished a Bourbon tasting as part of a wine educators' conference, so he was well-lubricated and ready to talk about the study.

What led you to do this study?
It's a combination of my profession, my daytime job, and my emerging career as a sommelier and wine educator. My family is in the restaurant business, so I brought those two aspects together.

The press release said you expect Bordeaux to make low-acid wines.
We're seeing, right now, Bordeaux is in the sweet spot. The warming experience in Bordeaux is referred to as the "bon problème." But people are starting to ask what's going to happen in 20 years.
They're already starting to see changes in the blend in Bordeaux, such as more Petit Verdot coming into the blend at wineries that never used it before. Warming climate is going to mean changes in the blends.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

How to make a 90-point wine

Chester Osborn
Chester Osborn told me this story earlier this week.

Osborn makes a lot of great high-end wines for his family winery, D'Arenberg in Australia's McLaren Vale. He also makes The Stump Jump ($10).

It's a Grenache-Shiraz-Mourvedre, three grapes McLaren Vale does well cheaply. But it's not his lovely $65 The Dead Arm Shiraz; it is what it is, a drinkable supermarket wine. The 2006 Stump Jump got 86 points from Wine Spectator, a score the magazine defines as "Very good, a wine with special qualities." But 86 is a long way below 90 in the eyes of wine distributors.

"The Stump Jump went absolutely mad in 2008," Osborn says. "It was the ripest, oiliest wine we ever made because of the vintage. When we made the '08, I made about 800,000 liters of wine that I thought I'd have to distill. It was so oily and weird. That was the wine I put in The Stump Jump."

And you know the punch line.