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.