Monday, September 18, 2017

Napa Cabernet, Yellow Tail and the anchoring effect

Why do many people believe a run-of-the-mill Napa Cabernet is a bargain at $35, while a single-vineyard Victoria Shiraz is expensive at the same price? The answer is a psychological phenomena known as the anchoring effect.

I'm reading the fascinating book "Thinking Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahneman, which explains, among other things, how our intuition affects our judgment in ways we don't consciously realize.

The anchoring effect is well-established through repeated studies around the world. You will protest that it does not affect you: so did many of the subjects to whom it was proven that it did affect them.

What it means is that if you are shown a number, even a completely random one, and then asked to estimate another number, you will be strongly affected by the number you were shown. 

Before I get to an obvious wine-price corollary, here's a fascinating study of German judges that demonstrates the idea. "German judges with an average of more than 15 years experience on the bench were asked to read a description of a woman who had been caught shoplifting, and then asked to roll dice that were loaded so that every roll resulted in either 3 or 9," Kahneman writes.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

China wine market update: Cheaper wines taking over

Thanks to consumption by young people -- including teenagers -- China's wine market is bouncing back from the 2013 government crackdown on conspicuous consumption by bureaucrats.

It has also changed immensely in a short time, mainly because of who is buying wine now: 45% of Chinese wine drinkers are under 30 years old. Sales of expensive wines continue to slide, while unlike in the U.S., the greatest sales growth is in the cheapest price ranges.

I learned this and more because I had the good fortune to attend a seminar put on for Wines of Argentina by two Chinese wine experts: Dorian Tang of the importer ASC Fine Wines, and Karla Wang of Lady Penguin, a successful social-media wine site, wine club and wine importer.

Karla Wang (left) and Dorian Tang

Here are a few key points from the presentation.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Tiki pioneer Trader Vic's still makes a fine Mai Tai

Your grandparents may have gone to Trader Vic's for a taste of Polynesia, but now that tiki bars are mildly trendy, Trader Vic's is down to two U.S. locations: one just east of San Francisco, and the other in Atlanta.

However, Trader Vic's is big in the Middle East. Of its 18 locations internationally, 11 are in the Middle East, including several in countries where drinking alcohol is, in theory, prohibited. You might think this is a hurdle for a restaurant chain that made its name with powerful rum-based cocktails, but in fact, that's the appeal.

Trader Vic's has 6 locations in hotels in the United Arab Emirates, where alcohol is allowed only in hotels. It also has restaurants in Bahrain, Oman and Qatar, where drinking is limited in similar ways; locals can go get their buzz on, and then return to piety. There is a Trader Vic's in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, but it serves only alcohol-free "mocktails."

"When we started the concept, in the (19)40s and '50s, you couldn't get to places like you can now,"  Trader Vic's director of beverages Nicholas Ascenzo told me. "People came to Trader Vic's for something exotic. Now you can fly to Polynesia. But in the Middle East, they don't go to Hawaii and the South Pacific, so we are still exotic."

Monday, August 28, 2017

Retsina's grapes find an artisanal use

Vassilis Papagiannakos and his temperature-controlled tanks
Savatiano is the most-planted grape in Greece, yet also one of the least known. It's the main grape of Retsina, the traditional resin-flavored that is a rite of passage for wine drinkers. As Japanese say about climbing Mt. Fuji, a wise man will try Retsina, but only a fool will try it twice.

Retsina is the type of wine people drank in antiquity. Without refrigeration, they used resin to seal wine in amphoras; the taste of resin masked subpar wine. The Greek wine industry stayed technologically far behind the rest of the world until the 1990s, which kept Retsina on the menu. Now, Greece is making exciting wines from Assyrtiko and Xinomavro and other grapes, but there are growers all over central Greece with big vineyards of Savatiano and a disappearing market for the wine they used to make with it.

Vassilis Papagiannakos is one such vintner. His family owns 100 acres of vineyards mainly planted with 60 to 70 year old Savatiano vines. His solution was to release varietal dry Savatianos: no resin, just the grape itself. They were groundbreaking in his region, and at first his neighbors thought he was making adulterated wine, which is ironic.

I spoke with Papagiannakos last week by Skype. He turned his computer around to show me that he lives by the ocean. Yeah, yeah.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The best sakes on the market: results from the US National Sake Appraisal

Before tasting 352 sakes in a day (see below)
Here's one way in which Japanese sake is better than wine: the floor is higher. You may never taste really terrible wines today* because gatekeepers like shop owners and sommeliers keep them out, but objectively bad wines exist and anyone who judges wine competitions knows it.

(* Pipe down, natural wine haters. Some people like them.)

I was one of 10 judges earlier this month at the US National Sake Appraisal in Honolulu. We tasted 381 sakes, all of them commercially available (this is not the case with most sake competitions in Japan.) I wrote for Palate Press about an important trend I discovered -- that Daiginjos are getting sweeter and Junmais are getting drier. Here I want to highlight a few of the outstanding sakes we tasted, and where you can buy them.

First of all, here is the competition results page. You'll note that unlike with wine competitions, even the sakes that did not win an award are listed, so you don't have to ask if we tasted your favorite.

From that list, the two Benten Junmais that finished first and third in the category were a revelation: outstanding and a great example of the impact of different rice strains, because the nicknames (Dewanosato and Tsuyahime) are names of the types of rice. The bad news is that neither of these sakes is currently available in the US. Sorry. Good news is that a longtime personal favorite of mine, Dewazakura Dewasansan Yamagata Junmai Ginjo, took third place in the Ginjo category and is widely available for about $36; buy it here.

My own notes on sakes I tasted during the competition aren't very good because tasting 352 on day 1 was overwhelming. I gave 9 of those sakes the highest possible score, but some didn't make the medal round because other judges didn't like them as much (I think I liked drier sakes than the average judge), and honestly, some sakes I didn't like quite as much the next day on retaste.

Here are some sakes I singled out with extremely high scores on both tastings:

Monday, August 14, 2017

Is rosé still cool? You be the judge

(Baby: What are you looking at?)

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

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

What's next for Anchor Distilling?

One of Anchor Distilling's most popular imports
Anchor Brewing Company was sold last week to Japan's Sapporo Brewing Co. for $85 million. But Anchor Distilling was not part of the deal.

I was surprised to learn Anchor Distilling is actually more profitable now than Anchor's much better known beers. The beer-based reason for the sale has been covered well by other sites, notably the San Francisco Chronicle. I called Anchor Distilling President and CEO Dennis Carr to learn more about what the newly independent spirits company will do next.

The answer turns out to have international implications, starting in London.

A brief background on Anchor Distilling: It was founded in 1993 as an offshoot of the brewery. It opened with two locally made products -- Junipero Gin and Old Potrero Rye -- that were as ahead of their time in the craft booze movement as Anchor Steam beer once was. It has expanded its business immensely by importing and selling craft spirits made in other countries, including bartender favorites like the Tempus Fugit spirits and Luxardo Maraschino liqueur (and the cherries.)

In 2010, the entire Anchor business was sold to former Skyy Vodka execs Tony Foglio and Keith Greggor. They sold the beer business last week and Carr said they took on the famous London-based beverage merchant Berry Bros. & Rudd as a partner for the distillery business.

Now Anchor Distilling has to look for a new building, but Carr said the distillery's 50 employees nationwide are expected to move with them.

The Gray Report: I was shocked to learn the distilling business is more profitable than the beer.

Dennis Carr: The beer category has become a crowded category. Premium spirits have been on the rise. These trends have been going on for the last two or three years. At this point, the spirits business is larger than the beer business.

TGR: Where are you planning to relocate?

Monday, July 31, 2017

Wine trade secrets revealed at OIV Wine Marketing Program

Here's why Duckhorn started a winery in Washington
Most wine stories (including mine) portray the bottle of wine on your table as a product of inspiration and craftsmanship. The reality of wine involves a lot more numbers than feelings, as I learned last week when I sat in on part of the OIV Wine Marketing Program at UC Davis.

Most of the students are already in the wine industry in many countries; for example, I met the Jackson Family Wines rep for China. These are not people on student loans. I got into a conversation with a man who is trying to find a Napa Valley winery to buy, but not just any winery: he wants one of the best.

The people who sat on my row, seemingly as depressed as I was by the Constellation presentation (more on that below), were both small winery owners in California: one in San Francisco and one in Nevada City. The San Franciscan was hoping to figure out how to sell the 500 cases a year he makes in a warehouse. I tried to help the Nevada City couple edit their elevator pitch: "You're not making wine in Nevada City," I said. "You're making natural wine from cool-climate grapes from Mendocino County." Both of these are true, but to me, only the latter gets you $25 a bottle.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The terroir of marijuana: Does wine country have the best soil and climate for cannabis?

Erich Pearson (Photo by Steven Krause)
California wine country is rapidly becoming California cannabis country. Will the two intoxicating cash crops compete for prime vineyard land?

There is very little experience in answering this question because marijuana has never been legally cultivated for recreational use. It has been grown where it could be grown (like greenhouses), not where it could be best grown.

Plus, there is no UC Davis for marijuana. Perhaps there will soon be a university research program devoted to cultivating cannabis for pleasure, but right now there's not even a word like "viticulture" ("cannaculture" doesn't have the same ring.)

I want to say this up front: I am licensed to ill in the great state of California, and I inhale. I have spoken to business writers who are covering the burgeoning marijuana industry but disavow any use of the product. I enjoy marijuana, as I enjoy wine, and that will inform my own (burgeoning?) coverage. Do you want to read wine stories from somebody who doesn't swallow?

I wanted to answer several questions about the terroir of marijuana. It took me some time to find someone to speak on the record. Erich Pearson is CEO of Sparc, a cannabis dispensary in San Francisco. You will see him quoted many places because Pearson is willing to be the face of an industry that has been in the shadows.

Sparc has a lease on a 400-acre farm in Glen Ellen, one of the warmer spots in Sonoma County, where the plan is to grow biodynamically. Here's an edited version of our conversation about the terroir of marijuana.

The Gray Report: What was your farm before?
Pearson: This was an old turkey farm. 40,000 turkeys at one point roamed these 400 acres. Their eggs were harvested and sold to make hatchlings. Currently it's about 2 acres of organic tomatoes. It's about 15 acres of free range organic beef cattle. And it's about 300 acres of free range chickens. Most of those vegetables and chickens go directly to a farmers' market. That is not us. That is our co-tenants. But we need livestock to grow biodynamically. We don't want the chickens in the marijuana fields during the year. We will allow the animals into the field and the cover crops in the winter.

TGR: What's the soil like?

Monday, July 17, 2017

Should a higher minimum wage affect how much we tip?

Courtesy Wikihow
San Francisco passed one of the country's most generous minimum-wage laws in 2014. Earlier this month, the minimum wage went up to $14 per hour, and it will rise again next July to $15.

What's particularly generous is that restaurant servers, who can legally be paid less in many states under the assumption that they will make up the difference in tips, must be paid the full minimum wage in San Francisco. We also have a law requiring restaurants (and every other employer) with 20 or more employees to pay for most of their health insurance.

Many people think that restaurant servers share their tips with the kitchen staff, but it's not true. In fact, servers sued a vegan café that attempted to have all tips shared with chefs and other kitchen staff; the successful lawsuit might have helped force it out of business. This is the reason some chefs have tried to create no tipping restaurants: because the people who bring your food often make more money than the people who make your food. But some chefs have backed off the tipless system because prices look higher with tips included, and plus, many diners just love to tip.

Republican white men, in particular, love to tip restaurant servers well, according to a recent survey by For them, the standard is 20%, while for women it's 16% and for Democrats it's just 15%.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Pope: "natural wine" can contain sulfites

If you think Drake can sell a lot of Moscato with a single song lyric, imagine how much wine the Pope could sell with an official papal advisory.

In fact, there was such a papal missive just last month: a Circular Letter to Bishops on the Bread and Wine for the Eucharist.

For natural wine fans -- I wonder how many of them are Catholic? -- the following section is tantalizing:

"The wine that is used in the most sacred celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice must be natural, from the fruit of the grape, pure and incorrupt, not mixed with other substances.
Great care should be taken so that the wine intended for the celebration of the Eucharist is well conserved and has not soured."

Like many religious tracts, those paragraphs are open to interpretation. As soon as I read them, I wondered, is the Pope endorsing no-sulfite wine? The first paragraph might read that way, but then the second says the wine should be "well conserved."

I contacted the Archdiocese of San Francisco for an interpretation. In the time it took the church to get back to me, I imagined how enormous a change the wine world might undergo if the Pope did call for no-sulfite wine to become the Blood of Christ.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Champagne, caviar and a wine pairing principle

This is how normal people look when they're attending a free Champagne and caviar dinner. See how I look below
I got invited to a Champagne and caviar pairing dinner. I'm trying to cut back on winemaker dinners -- hard to maintain my girlish figure -- but come on, Champagne and caviar? I went; wouldn't you?

 The idea for the Taittinger Champagne folks was to show writers that, for whatever kind of caviar you might decide to indulge in, there's a fine Champagne pairing.

Most of the other writers were food people, with a travel writer or two. We learned a lot about caviar. I also learned something important about food and wine pairing that, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, I guess I already knew, but let's talk about caviar first.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Errazuriz uses high tech to redefine "ripeness"

The traditional view of how grapes ripen
Usually when a winery applies a high-tech approach to winemaking, it is to get grapes riper. This was practically the only focus of wine technology of the past 20 years, and is a  major reason our wines are now so high in alcohol.

Here is a refreshingly different story: an enormous export-focused winery in Chile that has applied high technology so they can pick their grapes earlier -- at a different definition of ripeness.

It says something about today's wine market that lower alcohol can be an objective.

Errazuriz makes 16 million bottles of wine a year, most of which it sells in the northern hemisphere, so it cannot take a philosophical stance unless it's also commercially viable. In other words, sure, they can make wines that they like, but those wines have to be wines that sell.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

A Brief History of French Reaction to The Wine Advocate

1978: Qu'est que c'est?

1981: If you want to apply your untrained palate to appreciate our wines, we will not actively prevent you.

1982: Monsieur, with Burgundy, you should be grateful we send you any wine.

1984: Pardon? Monsieur? Allo? You are praising the wrong vintage. Silly American.

1987: Monsieur, we are afraid you do not understand wine. These numbers are all wrong. You have third growths higher than first growths! Do you not understand geography?

1990: What is this nonsense about California making perfect wines? Monsieur, you go too far.

1993: You have insulted Burgundy wines for the last time. Our lawyers will see you in court. You are no longer welcome to bathe in our foie gras.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Right-wing website's wine club may be violating U.S. law

Wine clubs are a profit center for several media organizations, including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Most wine clubs are pretty similar: they include a lot of private-label wines, generally given generic names like Lone Pine Hill or Bramble Ridge to try to sound authentic.

The Daily Caller's wine club is different. The Daily Caller is a right-wing website and accordingly its wine club is unabashedly right-wing, calling one of its private-label wines "306 Wine," with the following marketing language:

A reminder of the number of electoral votes (306) that President Donald Trump won on November 8th, 2016. Your trophy for your victory in the great election of 2016 has arrived. When dawn broke, our flag was still there and we turned our map red.
That's fine. I'm not a Daily Caller reader and don't share its politics, but I'm glad that it's promoting wine drinking. It's the other wine on its website (here's the site) that may be violating U.S. law.

Monday, June 26, 2017

A really stupid wine article, annotated

This article just won a big award: Stupidest Wine Article of 2017 So Far! (Plus craziest Oreo creations!)
I don't like to pick on people for writing stupid wine articles. I have written some stupid stuff over the years; write enough words publicly, and it will happen.

But a well-funded publication like Food & Wine has editors who should have torpedoed the article I'm about to tear apart. The magazine is moving to Alabama, and maybe this article is a harbinger of the crap publication its owners want it to be; I don't know. I only know about this article, which in addition to being poorly reported, ends up being profoundly anti-wine, so the gloves are off.

Here's a link to the article. Go print it out because when the editors read this post -- and someone will forward it -- the article may be deleted. (UPDATE: It has apparently been deleted. I have screenshots but I think I'll just let this one die.)

First, the headline: "This $10 Supermarket Wine Just Won A Big Award"

That might be interesting news if it were true. Problem is the wine that the writer is about to sell didn't actually win anything.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Why I decided not to post tasting notes

Like a beach many miles from the sea: what a Roero Arneis vineyard looks like before planting
This month my column for Palate Press is about Roero Arneis. It's an interesting story and I'm not going to tell it here. What I do want to talk about here is tasting notes and scores.

I have tasting notes and scores on all the wines I recommended at the end of the article. Normally I would have appended them. That's how mainstream wine writing works, and that's fine.

In the case of Roero Arneis, I felt that there is an ideal taste profile, which I describe in the article. I like that taste profile a lot. Sure, there are variations within it, and I could write my tasting notes in such a way that they all sound very different. And there are variations of quality. 

There are several reasons I decided not to run tasting notes: the first two regarding the nature of wine tasting, and the others because of the relationship between wine consumers and the media.

1. The wines were tasted under very different circumstances

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Austerity is in for Napa Carneros Chardonnay

Remember when Carneros Chardonnay was buttery? Those days are mostly over.

Recently I took part in a private tasting of more than 30 Napa Carneros Chardonnays under WSET rules, which I wrote about here. I was supposed to be paid (check IS in the mail, right), but the downside of that is, I couldn't keep my notes. All I have is the general impression, but it's a powerful one.

Austerity is in for Napa Carneros Chardonnay.

None of the wines we tasted had the rich, buttery taste Rombauer has made famous. (Note: We didn't actually taste Rombauer, though most of its grapes come from Carneros.)

Even more surprising, very few wines tasted of French oak. Sometimes people put "oaky and buttery" together as a descriptor, but they are very different. Malolactic fermentation that causes butteriness is often prevented in the world's greatest Chardonnays, whereas toasty oak is more often a welcome component. But most of these wines tasted of citrus fruit, alcohol and acidity.

At the end of the tasting, I wondered if this is the best path for Carneros Chardonnay.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

My favorite Canadian wines from Northern Lands 2017

For three days every two years, cosmopolitan Edmonton is the capital of Canadian wine, unless* (see below)
Canada's wine scene just keeps getting better. I had the opportunity to blind-taste a lot of fine wines at the recent Northern Lands event in Edmonton, and I came away particularly impressed with the semi-cool climate varieties, especially Pinot Noir and Syrah.

Given their quality, Canada's best red wines are also good value by world standards. The wines I'm going to recommend here can generally be had for $30 to $50. There aren't many very cheap Canadian wines, but on the other hand, Canadian wineries can't get away with charging Napa Valley prices, even for terrific wines.

The wines I list here are all available in the U.S. through a single California-based importer, WineVIP. Most of the vintages are a bit behind the new releases I judged, but the prices are in some cases cheaper than they are in Canada.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

A tale of three wine competitions

This photo from 2016 was not one of the three competitions I describe. I just like the photo.
Last month I took part in three very different competitive wine tastings. Let me describe them, and you try to guess where they were held.

1) A room full of old white men (there was one female judge, no non-white judges, and I may have been the youngest judge in the room) sat at tables of three, tasted wines together, and tried to give as many gold medals as possible. Silver medals were inadequate. If you didn't want to give a gold medal to a wine, you had to explain yourself first to the other judges and then to the competition director.

2) An ethnically diverse group of men and women sat around a table and frantically rated wines for 16 different characteristics. The tastings were timed and tasters had about one minute per wine. Each spot on the scorecard had to be filled out: Clarity, Intensity (visual), Color, Condition, Intensity (nose), Development, Aroma characteristics, Sweetness, Acidity, Alcohol, Body, Intensity (flavor), Finish, Flavor characteristics, Quality level, Score. (I feel stressed all over again just typing that in.)

3) A geographically diverse group of men and women sat at different tables tasting flights of wine. The objective was to pick the best and runner-up of each variety. More than one table got each flight, so every wine was considered by at least 6 judges. The top scoring wines moved to the next round, while the midrange scorers were tested again. In the final round, at least three tables of judges got each flight, and each judge ranked the wines of the flight in order. Discussion was allowed but the ultimate decision was made by combining and averaging scores.

So, where do you think these competitions were held? Guess now; the answer is after the photo.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Stephen Tanzer shows price matters in Napa Cabernet

Photo courtesy of Vinous
Last week Stephen Tanzer published a retrospective tasting of 2007 Napa Cabernets in Vinous. His column about the wines is available for free; only the tasting notes are behind the paywall.

I asked for (and received) access to the notes from Vinous because, to be honest, I expected to find something outrageous. Tanzer writes in a balanced manner. Glass half full:

The better ‘07s are beautiful, sleek Napa Valley examples with outstanding density, glorious fruit and excellent equilibrium. 

But glass half empty:

I tasted more than three dozen wines that did not make the cut for this article (i.e., I rated them lower than 85 points). And to my palate, more of these disappointing wines were unpleasantly green, bitter-edged, overextracted, excessively tannic, clumsily acidified, oxidative, volatile or dried by oak than chunky or over the top.

Reading that bugged me, because with Napa Valley Cabernet, we are talking about one of the most expensive wines in the world. It's difficult to find any Napa Cabs under $50; wines are just as likely to be over $100 as under. For that kind of money, people expect the wine to be good. They don't expect to shell out $125 for a wine, cellar it for years, and then have it taste like ... well, Tanzer says it better than I would.

So what I wanted to know is, how expensive were these bad wines?

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Now I've had a $3000 breakfast, so what's next?

When I wrote about having a $1000 Napa Cabernet for breakfast, it was Wine-Searcher's most-read story of the year so far. A taste:
The wine has the most basic name possible for a $1000 Napa Cab: "Rarity". It's as if a brothel were named "Sex": the name tells you exactly what you're overpaying for. 
Then came the sequel: The $3000 breakfast Cognac. A sample:

I hoped it wouldn't be a traditional French breakfast of coffee, a cigarette, and ennui. Of course that wouldn't happen, not in smoking-averse San Francisco, not where we pay $8 for avocado toast. Would it?

The latter story followed all the rules of sequels: It's more expensive, louder, and with a higher body count. The question is, if this is to be The $$$$ Breakfast Trilogy, where can I go next? I decided to look it up.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Overproof's whiskey cocktail food-pairing experience: a review

Overproof is beyond the swinging doors; ABV is downstairs
It's not quite dinner, but it's not just drinks: the high-concept Overproof bar-inside-a-bar is a new hybrid on the San Francisco food scene.

The idea is this: you buy a ticket (transferable but not refundable) for a 5-drink, 5-dish theme cocktail experience. The dishes are meant to be shared and are not huge, but we did not leave hungry. The cocktails are also a little smaller than the normal size, but we did not leave sober either. For fine-dining value it can't be beat: $60 a person, plus tax, ticket fees and tip.

Overproof is inside ABV, already one of the country's best cocktail bars, both for its fine cocktails and its elevated bar food. You can and should just walk into ABV and have a drink and some grilled octopus and fries. Overproof, on the other hand, is booked out weeks in advance. We were invited by a PR firm but they didn't have an opening for nearly two weeks, and we ended up with a 9 pm seating.

Pro tip: the 9 pm show has the advantage that you are not rushed to leave. Our tablemates had come to Overproof before at a 7 pm seating and mildly complained that they were hurried out the door. That said, they bought tickets for the second iteration of Overproof as soon as they went on sale.

The first iteration of Overproof offered rum-based drinks. Currently, it's all about whiskey, with 5 whiskey-based drinks and an interior theme that is meant to look like a cozy Tokyo izakaya. We sat under a samurai sword (real metal, but we didn't test the sharpness) and perhaps its implicit threat worked to keep anyone from chugging a shot of some of the Pappy Van Winkle on the library-like shelves.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Interesting views of the USA from an Italian vigneron

"In USA to sell a wine you have to tell a story. That has spread everywhere. Now everybody wants to tell a story about the wine. Why don't we just have the wine? Just let the wine speak for itself."

Lorenzo Marotti Campi runs a winery in Italy, Marotti Campi, with his father, but his hobby is taking pictures in the U.S. He likes landscapes, so he likes the west, especially the entire Rocky Mountain range from New Mexico to British Columbia in Canada.

I sat across from Marotti Campi randomly at a lunch held as part of Northern Lands, the terrific Canada-wide wine festival in Edmonton. This was very unlike most wine media lunches, where a PR person tries to keep the winemaker on point ("tell him about the exclusive sourcing of this Chardonnay"). We were just talking. Or rather, he was just talking, and showing some of his amazing photos, and I was learning what the rural U.S. looks like to an Italian these days. Spoiler alert: It is pretty, even when it isn't.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Making French-style Italian wine from France for a Dutchman

Dominique Génot on the Caiarossa estate
Is a French winemaker necessary for making elegant wines? Dominique Génot was hired for a Tuscan winery, Caiarossa, owned by a Dutch supermarket magnate for that express purpose, but he says that it may not be necessary anymore.

"That's something that's probably changed in the last 10 years," Génot told me. "When I first started in 2006, the idea was to look for elegance in the wine. Finesse. Not trying to make any blockbusters. They were a little bit afraid of working with someone more local. It was mainly this search for elegance and finesse that led them to choose a French winemaker. In the last 10 years, the style of a lot of Tuscan wines, they have been changing a lot. I'm not sure it's so important today to have  French winemaker."

That said, Génot has, if anything, become even more French. In 2015 he and his wife moved to Perpignan in the south of France, but he travels to Tuscany once a month to oversee Caiarossa.

Caiarossa is an interesting property.

Monday, May 1, 2017

"Reserve" marijuana shows weed is already using some wine-style marketing

The label was torn; sorry. But note the higher THC.
When marijuana is fully legal, how will it be marketed? For many years people assumed tobacco companies would swoop in, but so far that doesn't appear to be the case.

Instead, marijuana merchants are, for now, taking some cues from their neighbors in the wine industry.

Take a look at the labels to the right. First, there was Black Lime, the marketing name for a strain of marijuana. Now, there's Black Lime Reserve -- it costs more and is more powerful. That's right out of wine's marketing playbook.

This is an outlier. So far it seems that most legal marijuana merchants use marketing techniques more common with spirits than wine: brand recognition of names like OG Kush or Blue Dream.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Champagne Collet: Big yet little-known co-op aims for subtlety

Sébastien Walasiak
When you ask a winemaker what he's trying to achieve with his top-end wine, the answers are usually similar. Thus my ears prick up when somebody has a different goal.

"Usually in a special bottle you have very powerful flavors, a lot of character," Sébastien Walasiak told me. "We don't want powerful. We want a long mouth, but not too powerful, not too much character."

This for a $100 bottle. Tell me more.

He did, and the story ended up reminding me less of winemaking than of some of the sakes I most like now, but that also took me years to appreciate.

Champagne Collet is the oldest co-op in Champagne, founded in 1921 by growers upset over grapes from North Africa winding up in Champagne. There was a riot and an arson fire over the issue, showing that wine politics haven't changed in France in nearly a century.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Idaho makes its best wines yet

Melanie Krause, owner/winemaker, Cinder
Idaho wine contines to be a fixation for me. The promise of the state seems immense, thanks in part to global warming, which has reduced the risk of vine-killing frost. Terroir-wise, it's not very different from eastern Washington; it's just a matter of updating the farming and winemaking culture, and that's happening.

I love it when -- apparently every other year -- I get a box of Idaho wine samples. This year I tasted the two best wines I've ever had from Idaho. I also will recommend 8 of the 12 wines I tried, a higher percentage than ever, and on par with what I might recommend from a box of random wine samples from any region in California.

There is no "Idaho taste profile," just as there really isn't a Washington taste profile. Idaho was known for Riesling for a long time mainly because of its frost resistance. But when the vines can survive the winter, there's enough summer sun in the best-regarded Sunnyslope region (an unofficial subsection of the Snake River Valley AVA) to ripen red grapes.

Without further ado, here are the recommendations.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Three days in LA: Food finds on a non-foodie trip

A very LA breakfast at Sqirl
Last week my wife and I went to enjoy the World Baseball Classic final round in the City of Angels. The trip was defined by night baseball games, and thus not restaurant visits. Nonetheless we managed to enjoy some uniquely LA food experiences that I recommend for out-of-towners.

Sqirl: My veganish friend Michelle vetoed my suggestion of Langer's for lunch and insisted on meeting us at Sqirl, the spelling of which really threw Siri for a loop when trying to get directions. Sqirl was THE most LA place we visited, and we liked it so much we went back for breakfast on our way out of town.

Why is it so LA? Where else do Americans eat salad for breakfast? (Not to mention lacto-fermented hot sauce and Turmeric Tonic.) It's a great success story: a Brandeis graduate started by making preserves and now has a full-service all-day breakfast place.

The first item on the menu, the Sorrel Pesto Rice Bowl ($8.25) is perfect for LA: it's delicious and healthy enough to allow me to keep my girlish figure. (Walda Frey: also a girl). To be honest, I didn't notice the namesake sorrel pesto but I have no complaints. It's a small treasure hunt of tidbits. Slivers of preserved Meyer lemon pop into almost every bite, making it the rare bowl of breakfast one could call "refreshing," and giving nice contrast to the sheep feta. You don't see the lacto-fermented hot sauce and you're not always aware it's there, but it leaves a nice buzz on your lips as you finish.

In-house baked goods are excellent, and I would be ashamed to list every one the three of us tried. Let's just say the blueberry mint scone was good and leave it there. But we weren't going to be veganish for our whole trip so ...

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Boom times for wine media! Now if only we have something to say

In many ways, wine writing is better now than ever. There are fewer paid newspaper columns than 20 years ago, and for writers that's a bad thing, but most of those columns were myopic like a blind man touching an elephant: look, I discovered Port! Hey, Sauvignon Blanc exists and New Zealand makes it, here's one I tried!

Writing on the Internet is better because it has to be. You don't need to know what your local wine importer/part-time columnist thinks about Spanish red wines because you can quickly search for the opinions of an expert, a passionate newcomer, a local, a blogger who got a press trip ... whatever. You, the reader, have options.

But we writers went through a bad period of nearly a decade where we haven't had many options, not if we wanted to get paid. In the past week, though, I have learned of THREE new publications about wine scheduled for the next year. Three! In a week! It's like a lawyer learning a busload of tourists just got rammed by a drunk truck driver outside his office. Surely there's more work to be had!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Overwhelmed by wine education; I just want to drink wine

This is the way I like to learn about wine
Recently I attended an "educational" tasting of single-vineyard Barolo and Barbarescos. It left me feeling overwhelmed. Perhaps I experienced again what beginning wine drinkers face.

I went because I think I like Barolo and Barbaresco, and I wanted to taste some good Barolos and Barbarescos. I really am that simple.

As we know, wine is not that simple. It turns out that Barolos are not only different by which part of the Barolo region they come from: they're different depending on which part of the vineyard they come from. This wine tastes like this because it comes from a south-facing part of the vineyard on clay, whereas that one is from an elevated part of the same vineyard on sandy soil.

I despair. How can I keep track? I left that seminar feeling less confident in my ability to order a Barolo I like than before I got educated.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Why vineyards and other farms hire illegal immigrants

Last week I covered a Napa Valley Grapegrowers conference and wrote a news story about one of the topics covered: whether or not the county's wineries should consider marketing their above-average treatment of immigrant farmworkers.

Naturally, some readers took offense. You can't write about anything remotely political in this country without people taking offense. Commenters also made assumptions about my personal beliefs on immigration that aren't true, but some people aren't good readers.

I have always been very pro-immigration. I am not, however, a supporter of illegal immigration. I have been a legal immigrant myself in other countries. My wife is a legal immigrant here. For years it has bothered me that large news organizations in this country don't pay attention to the concerns of legal immigrants while writing sob stories about illegal immigrants who "made one mistake." I have pestered newspaper immigration reporters to pay more attention to legal immigration, and been ignored. There's a huge backup right now on processing green-card applications, and legal immigrants are worried, but nobody's writing about it.

However ...

The way the messed-up immigration system in this country works right now, it's impossible for farmers to keep feeding the nation without labor from illegal immigrants.

Monday, March 6, 2017

How I didn't get sued (yet): the bitter tale of ArKay alcohol-free whiskey

Update: I got a threatening email and Facebook post after writing this post. I'll post them below.

On Saturday I got a strange post on The Gray Report Facebook page announcing, "ArKay Beverages Ltd sues The Huffington Post, CultMoo and Amazon for deceptive advertising and unfair competition."

The company paid for a press release the day before but apparently nobody noticed; hence the Facebook nudge. ArKay makes alcohol-free imitation booze. I reviewed ArKay's certified Halal whisky-flavored drink in 2012, publishing my post just one day before the Huffington Post. The Huffington Post got sued* and I didn't.

* More accurately, the Huffington Post was announced as a lawsuit target and I wasn't. While the press release claims, "ArKay Beverages Ltd Grand Caymans Cayman Islands is filing a law suit against Huffington Post, CultMoo and Amazon and is seeking hundred on millions of dollars [sic] in damages," it doesn't say in what court the suit will be filed.

I hope that this suit is filed in a U.S. court because any good First Amendment lawyer will squash it like a bug. But you never know: Maybe ArKay will file in the Cayman Islands, where Amazon at least probably does business. I don't know about Cayman Islands' laws but it would be a shame if I could never again go scuba diving there.
But of course, as of right now I'm not one of ArKay's targets.

I spent part of my weekend following this weird story, even though there is some risk in writing this post because as I told one of the proprietors of Cultmoo by email, "it sucks to get sued." I suppose this is a relatively benign preview of the chilling effect our new administration would like to give journalists. So here's what I know.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The best 9, er, 4 current-release Tuscan white wines from San Gimignano

Random street, San Gimignano
It's tough to be a white wine in Tuscany. Red wines are king in this part of northern Italy, and no wonder, as Tuscany is home to the world's best Sangiovese. Unfortunately, the region's main white grape is nearly flavorless Trebbiano, which is why you don't see any Tuscan white wines on wine lists that are packed with the region's best reds, Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino.

One small pocket of Tuscany specializes in white wine: the beautiful walled medieval town of San Gimignano and its environs, where they grow Vernaccia.

Vernaccia was mentioned as a quality grape as far back as the year 1276, and the San Gimignano region was awarded Italy's first DOC, in 1966. Nobody doubts that Vernaccia di San Gimignano is the best white wine from Tuscany. But it does not achieve the greatness of the best Tuscan reds. Fortunately, it doesn't achieve the same prices either.

And greatness, in a white wine, is a mixed blessing. I don't know about you, but I can't drink two full glasses of some top-rated white wines from certain wine critics. What I'm looking for in a white wine is a tasty wine that goes well with dinner. I get the wine critics' dilemma, though, because if you say a wine's not awesome, who cares what you write about it?

So let's just say that the best 9 Vernaccias di San Gimignano are awesome enough. I picked them out of a blind tasting of all the region's current-release bottlings. Unfortunately they were so current when I tasted them that only one is in the US yet. And I had a bigger problem for blogging: 5 of the 9 wines I liked don't appear to be in the US at all. What to do?

Here are the 9, no, sorry, 4, best current releases of Vernaccia di San Gimignano.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Tasting the world's rarest wine grape

Is the sun setting on Roussin de Morgex?
I hate this kind of wine story: I tasted something so rare that you can't have it. But in this case, it's not because the wine is super-expensive or highly rated or even sought after at all.

I tasted wine made from a northern Italian grape that is even more rare than a grape called "almost extinct" in José Vouillamoz's definitive tome Wine Grapes. Ian D'Agata, author of Native Wine Grapes of Italy, said, "This wine didn't exist. It still doesn't exist." But we tasted it.

The grape is called Roussin de Morgex. It's not actually related to the nearly extinct grape Roussin, which is cultivated in just one vineyard in Valle d'Aosta. That is one more vineyard than Roussin de Morgex, which is from the same region but is not cultivated at all.

"Not cultivated and extinct are not the same thing," D'Agata told me by email.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

US made much more whiskey last year, but bartenders still recommend the biggest brands

Bartenders' most recommended spirit
Here are two unrelated bits of whiskey news, one surprising and one kind of depressing.

First, the TTB, the federal agency that oversees alcohol, released its 2016 statistics last week. A number that jumped out at me is the amount of whiskey produced in the U.S.: 166 million gallons, compared to 147.9 million gallons last year, a 12% increase.

To give you an idea of how huge an 18.1 million gallon increase is, last year the U.S. produced only 6.6 million gallons of vodka, gin and rum combined.

Now, that's production and not bottling, which means most of this whiskey is not going to be on the market soon. In fact, the amount of whiskey bottled last year went down slightly from 2015, and was less than half of the amount of whiskey produced. This is good news; hopefully that huge new batch of 2016 whiskey will spend some years in barrels.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Pairing wine with chicken

Chicken is one of the best foods to drink wine with. People often think of chicken as white-wine food, but it has enough meatiness to go well with red wines.

The only tricky thing about pairing wine is that chicken is a blank slate for chefs. A fried chicken sandwich with pickles and mayonnaise is entirely different from roast chicken with lemon and pepper. Sure, you can drink the same wine with both dishes, but the ideal wine for each would be very different.

Here are a few popular chicken dishes and some wine suggestions.

Fried chicken: Sparkling wine is a great pairing with fried food. If the fried chicken is spicy, try a slightly sweet sparkling wine.

Barbecue chicken
: Rosé goes well with most barbecue and chicken is no exception.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Social media doesn't sell much wine

Since the advent of social media, wineries have been wondering how important it is in wine sales.

According to a recent survey by Wine Opinions for the Italian Trade Agency, social media might not only be less important than 90+ point scores from critics: it seems less important than "wine is on sale for 10% off or more."

When you consider that the U.S. is a nation of bargain hunters, that makes social media recommendations seem pretty unimportant.

I say this as somebody who enjoys using Twitter, despite the company's coddling of abusive tweeters. But only 11% of high-frequency wine drinkers (people who drink wine several times a week) said they even visit Twitter once a month or more. Do they care about the bottle of Prosecco I just drank with herring? Not bloody likely.

The social media platform of most interest to wine lovers is Facebook, with 45% saying they visit it at least monthly. However, it's not clear that blurry cell phone photos of wine bottles on Facebook encourage anyone to buy wine, any more than the current barrage of angry political Facebook posts* is making anyone change their mind about how they should vote in the future.

(* I never thought I would miss Facebook photos of people's lunches, but I do.) 

Monday, February 6, 2017

Mount Gay master blender Allen Smith on his own visa rejection

Cocktails in the morning with Mount Gay master blender Allen Smith
Allen Smith has been with Mount Gay rum in Barbados for 26 years, but his career was nearly grounded by an overzealous immigration official.

Smith, 56, was born in the UK, but both of his parents are from Barbados, which should have given him citizenship in the country. Should.

His father moved to Jamaica shortly after his birth to work on the project of electrifying that island. The family spent most of his life through secondary school in Jamaica. When he was ready for university, he went to Reading, England, where after nearly a decade he earned a degree in biochemistry and microbiology.

In 1990, Smith had had enough of life in clammy old England and longed to return to the sunny Caribbean, so he bought a one-way ticket.

"I wanted to surprise my mum," Smith said. "But I traveled on a British passport. The immigration man said, 'You can't come in. You have to have a place to stay.' I said, 'I could stay with my mum, I could stay with my cousins, I could stay with some other cousins ...' He said, 'Don't get smart with me.' "

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Now it can be told: Device I skewered for home use turns out to have different market

The face of the Plum
In October I wrote a story for Wine Searcher headlined, "Unnecessary Wine Appliance Seduces Media" about a seemingly silly $1500 device called the Plum that would serve you individual glasses of wine from two bottles. It's a snarky takedown that I thought the device richly deserved, even though Forbes and the Robb Report had gushed about it for home use.

David Koretz, president of the company that makes the Plum, asked to meet me in person after reading the story and complaining about it in the comments. I'm an old-school journalist at heart who believes you should stand behind your work, but I insisted on meeting in a public place and telling friends where I was going. I was not planning to offer to make any changes to the story, so I expected to be harangued for a while and eventually to say, "I've got an appointment" and back away.

Instead, we spoke for 90 minutes, but the conversation was embargoed until this morning, when Plum finally released its real business plan.

It turns out that the Plum's primary market was never home users. Instead, it's designed for high-end guests in hotels, and for that, it makes sense.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Those wacky French! "You can't make pink bubbly because WE make pink bubbly."

Imagine if Napa Valley Vintners told Sonoma County Vintners, "You can't make Cabernet because we make Cabernet."

That's what's going on in a feud between two obscure French wine regions, Bugey and Die. A fine story by Wink Lorch in Wine Searcher last week explained the feud. Let me summarize it for you from an American perspective.

Cerdon is a small area within the Bugey region where vintners make pink Méthode Ancestrale sparkling wine -- bubbly made without added sugar, by stopping fermentation before bottling and allowing it to continue fermenting in the bottle. The main grape is Gamay, the grape of Beaujolais.

Die is a slightly larger region that makes white Méthode Ancestrale sparkling wine mainly from Muscat. But growers there have Gamay, so they want to make pink Méthode Ancestrale bubbly. They would call it Clairette de Die rosé, so it's not like anyone would believe it comes from Cerdon, which calls its pink bubbly Bugey-Cerdon.

Seems harmless, and the French government gave the Die growers the go-ahead. However, the Cerdon growers filed an appeal. They're upset. Their logic is exactly as I stated in the first paragraph: "You can't make pink Méthode Ancestrale bubbly because we make pink Méthode Ancestrale bubbly. We were here first!"

Cerdon takes this position even though sparkling wine made in Die was described by Pliny the Elder. Seriously!

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Sustainable wine: Women make it, people might pay more for it, and Sonoma County is trying to own it

Two significant research-based stories about sustainable wine dropped in the past week.

In the first, an Australian economist released a working paper stating that women in technical leadership roles -- i.e., winemaker or director of viticulture -- are more likely to make wine that is certified in some way as environmentally sustainable.

In the second, a survey by Sonoma County Winegrowers claimed that consumers will pay more for wines certified as sustainable, possibly $5 a bottle more.

There's a huge difference between the studies, though, in the definition of "sustainable."

Sonoma County is using the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance definition of "sustainable," which is toothless. Don't misunderstand: there are plenty of Sonoma County growers who are committed to protecting the environment. It's just that the CSWA's "sustainable" designation doesn't do that.

For the Australian study, let me quote author Jeremy Galbreath from the Curtin University of Technology in Perth:

Monday, January 16, 2017

Is Korbel the best sparkling wine in America?

A Korbel Brut bubbly won the sparkling wine sweepstakes at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition last week. A different Korbel Brut bubbly won the same award last year. The competition is the largest in the world for only American wines, with more than 6000 entries this year.

So does this make Korbel, some of which can be found for under $10, the best sparkling wine in America?

At this point you are expecting me to invoke Betteridge's Law of Headlines, which states that any headline that ends in a ? can be answered "No." But I'm not gonna, not right away anyhow.

Big wine competitions sometimes come up with exciting results for cheap wines -- and cheap wine drinkers. The ultimate was in 2007, when Charles Shaw was named the best Chardonnay in California at the California State Fair. But examples abound.

I was part of a jury once where the majority picked a nondescript $10 Italian red blend as best in show -- the best wine in the whole competition -- over a tête de cuvée Champagne and a terrific Chianti Classico. You can tell from my language that I didn't concur. The argument that the red blend's proponents made was that it was perfectly balanced and easy to drink, which should be the goal of all $10 red blends, though we didn't know the price. The Chianti Classico and Champagne split the "we want more than that" vote and the red blend won.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Is some French wine really from Spain?

France has the third-most acres of vineyards in the world, according to the United Nations, behind Spain, which has a whopping 25% more vineyard acreage than France, and China.

But France and Italy produce more wine than any other countries; they swap the No. 1 spot back and forth, depending on vintage. Despite having many more vines, Spain produces much less wine than France "produces," according to the official stats -- anywhere from 25 to 50% less, depending on the vintage.

The astute reader will have noted the use of quotes in the previous paragraph around a single word that is not actually a quotation. Here's why.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

An open letter to Twitter re: harassment and bullying

Dear Twitter:

You have a harassment problem. Like an alcoholic, your biggest problem is that you won't acknowledge you have a problem. Once in a while you make a high-profile decision to ban someone, but this is so rare that it's news when it happens*, while ordinary Twitterers are being harassed every day.

But you work at Twitter, so you're going to stop reading now unless I get to the point.

There is your solution in less than 140 characters. Now, an deeper explanation.

I am a First Amendment supporter and believe that free speech is important for democracy. I would not like to see Twitter suppress hate speech. If racists and misogynists want to send out horrifyingly rude tweets every 15 minutes, that's OK.

BUT, and this is a big BUT ... Twitter shouldn't force people to read personally insulting tweets, which is how Twitter works now.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

3 great, affordable, winter white wines from the Rhone

White Rhône wines exist outside our expectations. There are no Rhône white grapes on the list of top-selling wine varietals. The only one most people have heard of -- Viognier -- is barely grown outside of Condrieu, which makes wines too expensive for most people to try.

One of my greatest wine regrets is that I once ate dinner alone in Condrieu but was too cheap to drink Condrieu because the only bottles on the list were over 200 Euros. I had white Saint-Joseph instead, and was too shy to ask what grapes were in it.

French people don't understand why this is a problem. But Americans relate to wine through grapes, not regions. A New York Times article about Saint-Joseph, a Rhône appellation, opens by saying people confuse the region with Bordeaux or expect its wines to be sparkling, and this article is not from America's wine-ignorant era: it's from 2013.

French white grapes have conquered the world. Every major wine country grows Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris. But while the Rhône red grape Syrah is also ubiquitous, Rhône white grapes are minor everywhere, and thus there's still some mystery about wines from one of the best-known wine regions in the world.