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.