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.

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

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 ...