Thursday, October 30, 2014

"Sake Confidential" book review: Straight talk about sake

The best sakes tend to come from cold places
Intro to sake books haven't been as successful as intro to wine books, and not only because wine is much more popular.

Sake books tend to get bogged down early in describing how sake is made. It's an important question, but the answer isn't simple, nor does it have much to do with the really key questions about sake, such as How do I buy a good sake? How long does it last on the shelf? Does the region matter?

Also, many people who are interested in sake know something about it already. Very basic intro books won't interest them, but if a sake book is too advanced, the market for it is tiny.

John Gauntner gets around both these problems by writing "Sake Confidential" in a straight-talking, behind-the-scenes style.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Strippers know Champagne

Courtesy Stag and Hen, Amsterdam
The Champagne Bureau was in San Francisco last week for a huge trade tasting. I sipped a bunch of delicious Champagnes and left a happy camper.

I guess they wanted me to write about the uniqueness of Champagne. It's illegal to call sparkling wine made outside the region "Champagne" in 117 countries, but not in the U.S., where an amazing 45% of all wines labeled "Champagne" are actually cynical, cheap California-made swill.

I learned a bunch of interesting stats like that. Champagne has 4% of the grapegrowing land in France but earns 30% of the wine income (Napa is similar). The U.S. (17.9 million bottles) is the third-largest Champagne-consuming nation in the world, behind the UK (35 million) and France (170 million). But we are the world's greatest rosé Champagne market, as 16.2% of the Champagne we drink is pink.

But what you really want to hear about is strippers, right?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

David Ramey Q&A: "Alcohol level is not a political decision"

David and Carla Ramey met at a winemaker dinner
David Ramey has been a major figure in California wine for several decades. After graduating from UC Davis, he did a stint at Château Pétrus in Bordeaux and worked at Matanzas Creek, Chalk Hill, Dominus Estate and Rudd Estate before going out on his own with Ramey Wine Cellars in 2002. I think of him as a Chardonnay specialist, making wines with the generosity of California fruit yet without going overboard. But he has also spent a lot of his career making Cabernet. My wife and I met David and his wife Carla for lunch at Bistro Ralph, their favorite Healdsburg restaurant, and talked over a delicious bottle of 2005 Ramey Hyde Vineyard Carneros Chardonnay.

How did you first get into wine?

I was doing an inter-campus visitation from UC Santa Cruz to UC Berkeley. I rented a room from a woman who had a home in the El Cerrito Hills. She led a salon of international people. We had wine in a room with a spectacular view. I grew up as an only child in a house with two parents who didn't talk much. Dinner was at 6 o'clock and was over in 20 minutes. When I discovered wine could turn dinner into a 3-hour conversation, I was moved.

How did you get into the wine industry?

I was on my way to what I thought was (a job) teaching English for two years in Colombia. I was driving through Mexico. I thought, when I'm done (teaching English), what am I going to do with that? I said to myself, Why not make wine? It makes people happy. It's an aesthetic statement. It's not harmful to the environment. This was 1974. In Santa Cruz we were quite eco-conscious. I broke a piñata in Mexico on Christmas Day. Two weeks later I was back at San Jose State in Chemistry 1-A. It took 4 1/2 years to go from Chemistry 1-A to an MS in enology at UC Davis.

Where did you go from there?

Because I hadn't taught in Colombia, I wanted to work overseas, especially in France, because those were the grapes we worked with in California. It's such an odd twist of fate that in Sonoma County with all the Italian families, we ended up making all these French varieties. I opted for Bordeaux. I wrote 14 letters and got seven replies: six no's and one yes from Christian Moueix. So I went to work for him. After I left Bordeaux I worked at a factory in Australia, Lindeman's, where we made bag-in-a-box "Riesling." There wasn't a drop of Riesling in it. It was 50 percent Sultana and 37 percent Shiraz. They had all that old-vine Shiraz that they didn't know what to do with. They carboned it, they pressed it off as white, and then we charcoaled it. Stripped all the color out.

Monday, October 20, 2014

What soda makers think San Franciscans look like

Proposition E would put a 2 cents per ounce tax on sugary soft drinks if San Francisco voters pass it in November. The American Beverage Association -- mostly Coke, Pepsi and their distributors -- has launched a multimillion-dollar campaign against it.

San Francisco and its hordes of sex-crazed liberal junkies are popular demons for GOP campaigns every two years. Here, we get a look not at the San Franciscan the rest of the country is afraid of, but the image they think we will most relate to: A real San Franciscan, envisioned by a Coke executive in Georgia.

Man, I gotta go buy more lipstick.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.
All my election endorsements are here.

Friday, October 17, 2014

"American Wine Story:" Boring documentary without a plot

Wine doesn't make a great documentary subject. You can't capture the feeling of drinking an amazing wine on film, and in talking about it, you risk sounding like someone describing an orgasm.

That's not what makes "American Wine Story," released this week for sale online, dull. First-time director David Baker exhibits a frequent problem of people trying to chronicle the lives of winemakers: he's too nice, and so are they.

The best films -- the best stories in any medium -- require conflict and strong characters. "American Wine Story" avoids any conflict, and while it's filled with strong, interesting people, it doesn't capture their personalities.

It's a sign of the way the wine industry works that at this point, I feel the need to apologize for this review. I would just ignore the film, as writers usually do about boring wines, if it weren't for the uniformly positive press "American Wine Story" has received to date. Harvey Steiman of Wine Spectator called it "fascinating, gritty and ultimately bittersweet." Gritty? It's all tinkly piano soundtrack and people talking about how much they love wine. If that sounds like a good time, stop reading and go watch it.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Winemakers are paid less than HR managers

"This wine has an excellent bouquet and a long finish. It's a credit to the winery's human resources director."

Who's the most important employee at a winery? You might think it's the winemaker or vineyard manager. But they're not paid like it.

Wine Business Monthly released its annual salary survey in its October issue, and I was struck by how many people are paid more than the winemaker.

Here's a chart of average salaries from U.S. wineries of all sizes:

Monday, October 13, 2014

Endorsements for November 2014 San Francisco election

After a dull June primary in California, November has a lot of interesting decisions, and I'm here to help you make them.

I read the endorsements from the Los Angeles Times, which did a fine job on statewide races, as well as the Sacramento Bee and the San Francisco Chronicle, which was even weaker than usual. This is a problem for local races and ballot initiatives, many of which the Chronicle simply didn't cover. As always, the leftist San Francisco Bay Guardian weekly did the most thorough job.

Bad news update: These were the last endorsements the Guardian will ever do, because the paper was shut down by ownership on Oct. 14. 

I also read the endorsements of the local Democratic, Republican and Green parties, and the profiles listed by candidates on the crappy new Smart Voter site. In some cases (you'll see) it still felt inadequate.

Election endorsements are a tradition at the Gray Report, and I urge other bloggers reading this -- whether your normal topic is food, fashion or feet -- to do them. The more that ordinary people talk about politics, the less extreme and more pragmatic our choices become.

Governor: Jerry Brown

He has done a good job. No reason to change.

Lt. Governor: Gavin Newsom

He hasn't done much, but there isn't much to do in this job. His opponent is the former state Republican Party chairman, a right-winger ordered up from central casting. Thus it's not a hard choice for anyone in either party.

Secretary of State: Pete Peterson

The secretary of state's job is to oversee elections. The LA Times makes a good case for the Republican candidate Peterson, writing, "As executive director of Pepperdine University's Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership, he's spent the last several years training government officials on how to use technology to communicate with the public and how to get citizens to participate in civic decision-making." California hasn't elected a Republican state official since 2006, so the Democrat, termed-out California legislator Alex Padilla, is the favorite.