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?

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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.