Tuesday, May 27, 2014

White Burgundy made in Napa County? Burgundy and Napa cry foul

In 2006, the U.S. and E.U. entered into a wine trade agreement, one part of which was to restrict the future use of what the U.S. calls "semi-generic trade names" like Champagne, Chianti and Port.

The cool wineries in the U.S. changed wine names years ago to stop pretending to be European places that they're not. Quady winery calls its fortified red wine "Starboard." Schramsberg doesn't see any need to call its bubbly anything other than "sparkling wine." While Gallo and Korbel argue for the continued right to mislead consumers, wineries that change on their own have the high moral ground.

This is what surprises me about Imagery "White Burgundy." The Benzigers, who own Imagery, are generally considered good people: farmers, biodynamic pioneers, a multi-generation wine family. So why, in 2014, are they still selling a wine from Napa County called "White Burgundy?"

Joe Benziger is a good guy, an enthusiast about wine and life itself. He called me on Sunday to explain.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Best wines at Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Ruby Tuesday and Outback Steakhouse

Wine sales are down 17% at casual restaurant chains. Market researcher Charles Gill speculates that people are switching to beer and cocktails. I thought, is it because of the quality of wines on offer?

So I took a look at the wine lists for Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Ruby Tuesday and Outback Steakhouse (which crashed my browser), to come up with the wines I will order on my next visit.

Olive Garden:

The most ambitious list of the four. I love that you can order almost anything in a glass, a bottle or a "quartino" (250 ml, about two glasses worth, and good value on this list.)

Red wines are stronger here. Chianti Classico Riserva Rocca delle Macie would be my call; it's $22 in stores and $37 on this list, a reasonable markup. I'm amazed to see Col d'Orcia Brunello di Montalcino ($47 stores, $75 list) but I wouldn't splurge unless it's an engagement party or something.

For white wine, I'd go with Chateau Ste Michelle Riesling ($10 stores, $29 list), a really good wine that does well in blind tastings with much more expensive Rieslings.

It's an ambitious list, with lots of info about wine pairings, but it's not particularly strong; there's a lot of dross. Tim Hanni MW told me he consulted with the Olive Garden and learned that with 90% of servers, the more training they had, the less wine they sold. I guess that's because it wouldn't take long to want to go beyond this list's confines.

Red Lobster:

Monday, May 19, 2014

Art, commerce, wine and Sonic Youth

Sonic Youth was a rarity in their heyday, a band in pursuit of pure artistic expression signed to a major label trying to selling hundreds of thousands of their albums.

I just finished reading a book about them, "Goodbye 20th Century" by David Browne, and it got me thinking about many of the issues we talk about in wine.

I thought about the disconnect between popular culture and critical acclaim. About the limited commercial appeal of uncertainty, and of artistic expressions that are anything but smooth and easy to understand. And how it's possible to compromise one's art either too much, or too little.

Sonic Youth never sold anywhere near as many discs as, say, Hootie and the Blowfish, but you couldn't find a critic anywhere who would publicly prefer Hootie. Publicly. That's a key word. Sonic Youth in the '90s acted as an arbiter of coolness, and a music writer wouldn't be taken seriously by the congnoscenti if he didn't praise them.

Yet when they moved to the suburbs, nobody in town knew who they were, even when told they were musicians. 

I think about how many wine columns are devoted to Jura or Irouléguy other obscure critical favorites, and how few about California Chardonnay. Also, how dismissive most of us writers are about the supermarket wines most people drink: the Hootie and the Blowfish wines.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Most Master Sommeliers are somms in name only

Not gonna deal with pesky customers no more
If you want to have a conversation with a Master Sommelier in a restaurant, the only sure way is to invite one for dinner. You most likely won't find one working the floor.

This is something the Court of Master Sommeliers would rather not admit. I've asked the Court repeatedly for stats on how many MSs actually work on the floor in restaurants, and they've never responded.

Fortunately, I recently discovered a page on the Nation's Restaurant News website that lists 55 MSs, and their jobs at the time the page was written.

Of the 55, I can see only 8 who regularly worked the floor when the article was written. Another six might have been on the floor sometimes. That's just 25% combined. And at least 3 of those 14 MSs have moved away from those on-the-floor jobs since the article was written.

It seems like the great majority of Master Sommeliers aren't in restaurants at all anymore, except to eat or, in many cases, peddle wine for the distributor or importer who now signs their checks.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Endorsements for June 2014 San Francisco election

Election endorsements are a tradition here at The Gray Report. One of this country's biggest problems is that we don't talk enough about issues. It's how we end up at extremes, unable to compromise. So please, feel free to comment, but let's be civil.

California has an odd system in which the best two candidates, regardless of party, make it to the fall general election. In a Democrat-dominated state, that means we'll see some of these choices again in five months. It also means a lot of voters will sit this one out, which is a shame because there are some important and interesting ballot measures.

To make these endorsements, I read the suburban-leaning endorsements of the San Francisco Chronicle, the poorly programmed page of the Los Angeles Times, the namby-pamby "we like him ... and her too!" endorsements of the Sacramento Bee, and the voter info at SmartVoter.org.

I want to single out for praise the best endorsement publication in the state, the San Francisco Bay Guardian. The Guardian is well to my left, but even after an ownership change, this weekly paper does the work of interviewing all the candidates, even in minor races, and explains its position well. Whether or not you agree with its politics, the Guardian's endorsements are indispensable.

Now, to the picks.

Governor: Jerry Brown

What an amazing third act Jerry Brown has pulled off.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Lebanese wines impress at Concours Mondial

Map courtesy JF Hillebrand
I've never been to Lebanon, and until Sunday I could name only one winery there. I was blown away by a group of 14 Lebanese red wines I tasted blind at this year's Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, the world's largest wine competition.

I thought these wines were French, and maybe even high-end. The flight was easily the best my group got in three days, and we were stunned when we learned where they were from.

The best wines had a French sensibility, with elegance, balance and complexity. I think most were Cabernet-based, but I could be wrong, because Lebanese winery websites are terrible.

Moreover, the prices are reasonable: under $20 for the wines I could find. And none were from the only Lebanese winery with any fame in the US, Chateau Musar.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

What if Robert Parker judged in a wine competition?

I just spent three days as a judge at the world's largest wine competition, the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles. More than 8,000 wines were entered, which meant more than 300 judges were needed.

Every one of these judges is a wine expert: wine brokers, critics, enology professors. Something I marvel at every year is how different not only are our opinions, but our standards and expectations.

Example: This year my panel got a flight of 11 Cavas. They were mostly fruit-driven, simple but pleasant wines. I gave 4 golds and 6 silvers, with only the last wine, an older wine, getting no medal from me.

The two judges next to me, from Portugal and Belgium, gave no medals to the first 10 wines, and gave only the last one a silver medal. They gave the same reason: They preferred its complexity, whereas I thought the wine was interesting but unpleasant.

I have this kind of interaction every time I judge wine: people with good palates and knowledge who simply disagree. I don't think I was "right" on the Cavas. What differed was our standard: I rewarded pleasure, while my neighbors punished simplicity. Ultimately the statisticians will sort it out.

I don't know which way Robert Parker would have gone, had he sat on the panel with us. But it would be interesting to have that discussion with him, and I think he's missing out by not having it.

Monday, May 5, 2014

World's Best 100 Types of Wine: The Last Election

Finally, we're at the end of this journey. This week we finish the publicly sourced list of the World's Best 100 Types of Wine by picking the final five.

Thanks to everyone who participated in this. It has involved some hard choices, but the final list will be impressive, and should be an incentive for everyone who reads it to go out and try some great types of wine that might not be in your cellar.

Like last week, please choose just 5 of these 14 wines.

For information on this election, read this.

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

Thursday, May 1, 2014

20 good years for wine. What's next?

Twenty years is a generation. We have experienced an entire generation of growth in the U.S. wine market, and we've begun to take it for granted.

It's barely news anymore, the annual data that Americans spent 5% more on wine than the year before. The rise seems as inexorable and inevitable as increases in housing prices and cable TV penetration and literacy.

How could Americans ever drink less wine than today?

You could have said the same thing about French and Italians and Spanish a generation ago, especially as their wines experienced spectacular rises in consistency. But Europeans are drinking less wine, and it's worth looking at the cultural differences.

People from France and Italy and Spain grew up in a culture where wine was a staple, as much a part of the meal as bread. Their per capita rates of consumption are still higher than in the U.S.

Ironically, the worldwide rise of wine connoisseurship has something to do with lower overall consumption in these countries.