Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Drinking & Knowing Things: A book review

Michael Amon
This is a sponsored post: Michael Amon paid me to write about his book. He also offered (and I accepted) to pay my higher pre-publication-preview sponsored-post rate without seeing the post ahead of time, but this is a guy who cites some wine brands that he likes despite ... well, let me just quote him writing something I would never dare to write, about a wine he actually recommends.

"My Tempier discussion comes with a caveat. I think their quality control processes suck. In my experience about one out of every three or four bottles of Tempier is faulted. Sometimes it's too much brett, sometimes cork taint, and sometimes it just tastes bad. You're taking a gamble with it ... If you try a bottle of Tempier Bandol and you don't like it, it may be that you have gotten a bad one. It's like playing the lottery with $80 and a two-thirds chance of winning."*

This is the type of shockingly honest wine advice that runs throughout Drinking & Knowing Things, a self-published compilation book of a weekly email he sent to friends and associates during the pandemic, cluing them in to grape varieties and wine regions that are "Dope AF."

Despite calling himself the World's Leading Wine Influencer (which he apparently did to irritate friends in the wine industry), Amon actually knows even more about wine than he lets on. He's a successful international business consultant who works with some wineries, and he is a stage 2 Master of Wine candidate. He's also involved in planting the first wine grapevines in Bhutan, where he liked the look of the terroir while running a marathon. And he says he has a tattoo of La Tache vineyard on his chest.

His style of writing is conversational, bragging and profane, full of in jokes, and perfectly suited for the 1500 to 2000 word length of his weekly missives. I started out with this book as a toilet companion (I know people who keep The Oxford Companion to Wine in there) and that's an outstanding way to consume these columns, but I wasn't getting the book read fast enough, hence I had to sit down (in a chair) and read the whole thing. It's not the best way to read it, but it was still better than your average intro-to-wine book, which I usually fast-forward through if I have to review because I know the stuff already. Amon is amusing and provocative enough to get me to read about things that I already know about.

I like the unfiltered nature of his writing. He hasn't dealt with editors or the general public, so every now and then you get a frisson of danger, and not just because he can write "fucking" and I can't. I also can't write this:

"Many of the 'best' Champagnes are not. Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label is one of the shittiest Champagnes of all time for the price. If you drink this, you are a victim of marketing and also an idiot. Here's some homework. Get a bottle of Yellow Label, and also of something at the same price point (Pol Roger, Henriot, whatever). Pour a glass of each and drink them side by side. You will immediately notice that the Yellow Label is bitter, tastes rather disjointed and not as smooth, and the bubbles are larger and harsher. Side by side, it's easy to taste the difference. Then enjoy the other bottle while you use the leftover Yellow Label to degrease your lawnmower."*
(*My wife insists I repeat that this is a quote from "Drinking & Knowing Things," written and published by Michael Amon.)

A few years ago a friend texted me from a grocery store where he was about to buy Yellow Label for an anniversary with his wife, and I talked him into something better, but even in a text to a friend I didn't go quite that far. But you know, he's not wrong.

For each of his essays about a region or varietal he offers a couple of specific wine recommendations, and apparently in the email columns you could just click on them to get a Wine Searcher link. But the columns are almost never about individual wines. It's all about him assuming you're not a stupid person, but you don't actually know about Gigondas or Madeira. Even if you do, it's often still entertaining. I found this to be an illuminating observation about why so much varietal Cabernet Franc is disappointing; in writing about the grape, I had not considered it, but I think he must be right:

"I think that one of the reasons that there are a bunch of shitty Cab Francs out there is that producers of Bordeaux style blends grow Cab Franc grapes, and in some years they don't need to put that much of it into the blend. Maybe the Cab Franc that year wasn't that great, or maybe they only needed a little of it or whatever, so they bottle up the rest as a single varietal wine so it doesn't go to waste and they can recoup a little cash from it. And it isn't awesome. You'll know because the winery one year will have a 'special bottling' or 'limited release' or something like that, which will sound very impressive and will magically be a single variety Cab Franc. Avoid these like Coldplay."

Amon likes Cab Francs from Chinon and Saumur Champigny; he's a big Loire fan in general. He also likes Riesling, Arneis, Pinot Noir, Xinomavro and Nerello Mascalese. He hates Robert Parker and too much oak; he thinks "old vines" are a marketing scam. I should thank him because ... confession alert ... I didn't actually know what Bourgogne Passe-Tout-Grains is, and now I can't wait to try it.

Where he falls short is on more general topics, and maybe this is because he's like your really drunk smart friend talking loudly in a bar, and that person is much more fun to listen to when explaining how to make your own Madeira-type wine at home than describing what exactly tannins are, or how food-pairing works. And your tolerance for in jokes will vary: I emailed him asking "Who's Ann?" (partner) and "Who's Erik?" (coworker) I think this is a product of him not writing for a general audience. Amon writes like there's a club and it's inclusive so that you can be a member -- all you have to do is be interested in wine -- but he is definitely club president.

Would I praise this book if I wasn't being paid by the author to review it? That's a thought experiment I can't answer, as I probably would have never picked it up; intro-to-wine books just aren't my jam. But the fact is I did get a kick out of it.

You can order the book here.

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

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Professional wine tasting notes are for the reader, not the writer

Ten years ago I went to the Professional Wine Writers’ Symposium and hated the session on writing tasting notes so much that I have complained about it ever since. This year the Symposium went virtual, with an interesting, diverse set of speakers, so I signed up. 

Perhaps this was predictable: while I enjoyed some of it, I hated the sessions on tasting notes so much that I was either going to complain for the next 10 years, or write this rant.

Here is the TL;DR version:

* The point of being a professional wine writer is to get paid. That's what “professional” means.

* A professional writer writes for two audiences: readers, and the editor.

* Professional tasting notes are for the reader (or paying editor), not the writer.

* The point is to communicate an idea of what the wine tastes like. 

* Most tasting notes are boring. Long conversations about them are even more boring.

* Everybody hates scores! Except for most of the wine trade and most consumers.

* The writers who score are more successful than the writers who don’t.

Now here's the rant version:

Naturally the session kicked off by mocking a Robert Parker tasting note. They are eminently mockable. But Parker is by far the most successful professional writer of tasting notes the world has ever seen. This is like directors of dinner theater mocking big Hollywood movies. 

Here is what Parker did better than anybody: he communicated excitement. Berries burst from the glass. Flavors explode in your mouth. The finish lasts for a full minute! It’s easy to mock the fruit salad nouns of blackberries, huckleberries, marionberries, loganberries, etc. Where Parker succeeded was the verbs. Wines in Parker's tasting notes were alive and active. 

I say this despite the fact that Parker’s 99-point wines, where he found endless layers of flavor, often tasted like monolithic assaults on my mouth. But that's a question of personal taste, not Parker's writing. 

Lyrical writers like to call Parker clumsy. Maybe they are Mozart and he is Salieri. But in writing tasting notes, we are not drafting a masterwork that a future generation will discover 100 years from now. 

After attacking Parker, a writer who’s retired, the Symposium failed to talk about any of the current Advocate writers, or the Wine Spectator critics, or Antonio Galloni of Vinous, or Jeb Dunnuck, or James Suckling. These are people who make a living writing tasting notes! Unlike Eric Asimov or Jancis Robinson, who would be successful wine writers if they never wrote another tasting note, these writers’ whole careers are based on them.

Are they the best at it? Define “best.” They have people who pay for subscriptions to read their tasting notes every month. Do you? I don't.

Encouraging writers to write unusual tasting notes is a literary exercise in the worst literary genre imaginable, and it’s not the path to getting paid. If there’s a publication out there that will pay writers for tasting notes in haiku, I want to write for them. (Text me!) But, generally, they don’t. I loved WineX magazine as literature; it famously described a wine as "Brad Pitt stepping out of the shower." If somebody got paid to write that, more power to them. But I have no idea what that actually tastes like (and frankly, ewww). It’s no coincidence that Wine Advocate is still in business and WineX is not.

Rant Part Two

Writers should be aware that others don't share the same cultural references. English critics often say wines taste like “pear drop;” I have no idea what that tastes like. An Indian sommelier on the panel said she had read about blackberry flavors for years – but had never tasted blackberries, because they don't grow in India. OK, remember that if you write for an international readership (I do.) 

What I am trying to do, in a tasting note, is give you some sense of how the wine tastes. I also use that opportunity often to do a little more storytelling -- but about the wine, not about myself. 

If I write a feature about Oregon Malbec, I sometimes add a tidbit that doesn’t fit in the main story, but might help you appreciate the wine. If I have 35 words for a tasting note, I might spend 25 on storytelling. But those other 10 words have to explain whether or not readers will like the wine.

A lot comes down to ripeness and body. For me, "restrained," "fresh," "savory" and even "salty" are positives. But many consumers want powerful, rich, fruit-driven wines. If you help your reader it's easy for someone who doesn't share your taste to parse your notes to see if a wine might appeal to them.

The Symposium did make a few useful points. Nobody should call a wine "masculine" or "feminine" in 2021 because nobody knows what that means anymore; half the women in San Francisco can kick my ass, and the other half say, "What do you mean, only half?" Using the word "exotic" just says you're not a very international person. Why would yellow curry be "exotic" and not tater tots? 

When bloggers get together, we tend to support the most florid, least helpful tasting notes possible. We praise the literary quality of lengthy notes that can be poems or meditations on the writer's childhood.

Twice in the last 10 years, I held my tongue in the Symposium while everyone praised tasting notes like -- these were actual ones from this year -- "It reminds me of the trunk of my grandfather's car," or shades of Wine X, "That tastes like kissing Antonio Banderas." (We need more info -- is he a smoker?)

But we’ve been round this problem before. We had this conversation 10 years ago and, just like last week, the discussion quickly deteriorated into exactly the same kind of discussion bloggers always have about tasting notes. If you want to blog and write whatever you want for no money, then do so -- that's what I'm doing right now. But if you want to be a professional, it's an entirely different conversation.

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

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Beautiful scenes from this spring's dangerous frost in Tuscany

The story of 2021 for the wine industry in most of France is going to be the devastating frost that might reduce the crop by half or more, nationwide.

Until I got an email this morning from a winery in Tuscany, I wasn't aware that Italy faced the same fear. Nor, I'm sorry to say, do I know anything about the extent of the damage in Italy.

Take a look at these photos taken on the nights of Apr. 7 and 8 by Enea Barbieri at Tenuta di Trinoro in the Val d'Orcia region of Tuscany. Val d'Orcia is right next to Montalcino, so if it experienced a frost event last week, it's likely that Montalcino did also, and I worry about nearby Montepulciano as well.  

The PR firm that sent the photos didn't say anything about damage to the grapes. Temperatures apparently reached -4.5Âș Celsius. The vines themselves are not at risk from temperatures that low but after budbreak, it is possible to lose that year's crop.

Thus the winery staff of 36 spent the day and night placing 3000 impromptu candles made of buckets filled with wax. 


The press release says, "At Tenuta di Trinoro operations started at around midnight, with careful monitoring of the falling temperatures, until fire had to be set to stacks of firewood piled around the vineyards; then the 3.000 candles were lit. This kept the air around the plants above 0° degrees, while all around the vineyards, temperatures as low as 4.5° below freezing point were registered."

Pre-pandemic I had the privilege of visiting Tuscany often and, in addition to making some of the world's best wines, it is a beautiful place. Art is a part of life there, so perhaps it's not surprising that  photographer Enea Barbieri could find aesthetic inspiration in difficult circumstances.

There's nothing more I can say but to send my best wishes to the vignerons of France and of Tuscany for better weather going forward in this challenging year. And thanks to Tenuta di Trinoro for turning trauma into inspiration. 

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

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

How do people choose which wine to buy? An informal survey

Last month I was staring at three bottles of wine. Each was the same grape variety and from the same basic region (but not sub-region). I didn't know anything about the producers so there was no reason to blind-taste, but before diving in nose-first, I got to wondering -- if I was in a store or restaurant, and these three very similar bottles were on offer, which would I choose?

This is a question that comes up for wine lovers all the time. You're in a store; you want, say, Sauvignon Blanc. There are three from a region you like from producers you don't know. How do you choose?

I put the question on Twitter. My Twitter followers are not a randomized group. I have never done any data analysis (and don't worry, I never will), but I assume that at base, they are people very interested in wine and in learning more about it. This is a niche in the wine market, but one that spends a lot of money on wine. So what would my followers say?

What most surprised me is that most people did not mention price. Also, very few people mentioned critic's reviews, though several mentioned social-review aggregator sites.

A few wine retailers suggested asking the retailer for guidance, and I support that suggestion, but it's not an option at big stores that don't specialize in wine (Costco or supermarkets, for example) or restaurants with no sommelier on duty.

I collected some of the most enlightening responses. I wasn't looking for wit (though I got plenty; my followers are clever.) Instead I was looking for honesty: a window into why people choose the wines they do. 

One thing is universal: the label matters. We may all interpret its message differently, but it matters. For many years when I bought French wines I was a sucker for a bottle with a croix on the label; I'm not religious so I can't explain it. I can explain some of my other parameters: lower alcohol for me is is a plus, though I don't apply it to differences less than 0.5%. Organic or biodynamic viticulture is a plus. I try to avoid wines where the tasting notes on the back label sound like something I wouldn't enjoy (very helpful with Chardonnays.) But would I pick a single-vineyard wine over a regional wine of the same price? I'm not sure.

Here is what my Twitter followers said (each is a separate comment; I haven't formatted all as tweets):

actually, I would purchase all 3, taste them, and only then go back and purchase the one I liked best.

Assuming I didn't know any of the producers and couldn't research them on my phone: vintage especially for places like Bdx, any tech. info like pH and oak aging to determine the style, and finally the price.


I would choose the label that has an animal on it.

Region for varietal, then price as a guide, then interwebs/ Vivino for reviews


Probably the label that WASN’T touting ORGANIC and BioDynamic whatnots...

If I were in a retail outlet, I’d ask their opinion. Otherwise I’d see what they said online as well as what others said about them online. Failing either of those options being available, either the most resolutely old-school in its packaging or the confidently off-the-wall. 


I’d check the back labels, see who the importer was, and go with the one I was familiar with. 

Bio of owner/winemaker. Looking for people I know about in their background. I have found a lot of great new wines by following winemaker's interns. Then CellarTracker, Wine Berserkers, or industry people who I trust and align with their palates.

Two answers: 1. ABV%, Vintage, $. 2. Champagne


Producer , importer , price

Artistic merits of label.

Fun question. Assuming I knew zero about the producers, I’d have a quick look at Delectable/CellarTracker, scan avg takes, look for ppl I recognize and how they describe the character.

Vineyard 1st. Failing knowledge or Google the label.

I face this question all the time and it's the reason I go with the recs of a retailer I know and trust. Lacking that, I look for something distinguishing on the label, such as certified organic grapes.

Prettiest label.


This one is my favorite, because I assume he's telling the truth and it's an interesting idea:


You know what nobody at all mentioned? Closure type. Nobody said they would buy the one with the screwcap, or the one with the cork.

The data is not at all scientific, but one of the most interesting things about an exercise like this is to learn that even among people with similar interests, we all think differently.

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

Monday, January 18, 2021

I drank smoke-tainted canned wine and liked it

Sans Wine Co. makes some of the best canned wines in the country, and to prove that fact they held an online media tasting last week of three different vintages from three varieties. They wanted to prove that canned wine can last on the shelves: apparently it can, as the 2017s were just fine in 2021. I also learned something more significant.

We tasted nine canned wines: three Cabernet Sauvignons, three Carignans and three Rieslings. I'm not talented enough to interview people, taste wine and take notes all at the same time, so I tasted the wines beforehand.

My favorite wine of the nine was Sans Coyote Rock Block Poor Ranch Vineyards Mendocino County Carbonic Carignan 2018. I'll share my notes, unedited after what I later learned, out of respect for Sans owners Jake Stover and Gina Schober, who have pledged to be completely transparent about their wines.

"Much like the '17: smells fruity, red berries, a little denser. Best aroma of the three. Juicy, fruity, with enough freshness and good depth. Ambitious: this is a wine that's not just trying to be portable. But it still has the immediate appeal of a carbonic* wine."

(* "Carbonic" means carbonic maceration, a technique often used in Beaujolais that usually results in fruity, easy-to-drink wines.)

 Well, that aroma and depth of flavor I liked so much were apparently enhanced by 8 mcg/liter of smoke taint compounds, which is, according to ETS Laboratories, above the perceivable threshhold (Stover said ETS says 6 mcg/liter is the threshhold.)

Stover, who makes the wines for Sans, says their Zinfandel from the same vintage, which we didn't taste, also has smoke taint above the threshhold.

"We're trying to be as transparent as possible," Stover said. "It does show to us (in the Zinfandel) but it's also a lot of people's favorite wine."

Just as Stover and Schober risk some of their reputation by being honest, so am I. At professional tastings there's often a lot of one-upmanship on finding "corked" wines. I have sat with many <del>egotists</del> professionals who want to make sure everyone at the table knows they were RIGHT about that wine, and they noticed it first.

I didn't catch the smoke taint in the Carignan, and I liked it when tasting it, so I decided to double down and we drank that wine with dinner. The safe thing to do would be to say, "Oh, now I get it. Ewww!" (Something else I have seen many people do at professional tastings.) That didn't happen.

Knowing that I was consuming a smoke-tainted wine didn't change a thing: We had it with country ham and beans, and it was fine; we finished the (375 ml) can. Granted, that was smoke on smoke, but I didn't choose the meal based on the wine; it was what we were planning to have anyway. Ironically, the 2017 Sans McGill Vineyard Rutherford Riesling, which I liked on its own and which wasn't smoke-tainted, was not as good with the meal. Maybe the smoke helped the Carignan.

You could take that under advisement: if you have a wine that you believe might be smoke-tainted, maybe drink it with barbecue. But honestly, I liked it just fine on its own. 

UC Davis professor Anita Oberholster said last year that about 25 percent of people cannot detect smoke taint in wine. Perhaps I am in that 25 percent. If so, I'm really lucky, as I will be able to fully enjoy a lot of deeply discounted wine in the next couple years.

There are other possible explanations:

* The smoke taint compounds were barely over the threshhold. Perhaps I would have noticed a little more smoke taint, or I would have noticed it more in a different grape variety like Pinot Noir.

* Guaiacol compounds, like sulfites, are naturally occurring in wine grapes and oak barrels and perhaps this particular low level worked like oak staves, adding flavor without being a negative.

* Smoke taint can bind with compounds in the wine and be released months or even years after bottling. It's possible that these compounds were still bound and therefore not truly perceptible, even though they were technically over the limit.

The last caveat is an important one. Maybe if I drank the same can of wine a year later, more bound compounds would have been released and I would have noticed it. If you suspect a wine in your cellar might be smoke-tainted, it's smart to drink it sooner rather than later.

I respect Stover and Schober's honesty and suggest that you try their wines. Their business is based around making good single-vineyard wine from quality locations and adding nothing to it, not even sulfites. That may be safer in canned wines because, unlike in a bottle, there is no headspace of air below the cork or screwcap; a can can be completely oxygen-free. This is probably why they were able to prove their point. Sans wines are real wines and have vintage variation, but I noticed no deterioration over time.

Ironically, it's easier to find their wines in bottles right now because Whole Foods liked their canned Carignan enough that it asked them to bottle some up for national distribution. It's Whole Foods: after Schober pounded the pavement to get small stores to carry their relatively pricey cans (most sell for $10), the business they founded to make quality canned wines currently makes more bottled wines.

"There's a surprising amount of Carignan planted in California," Stover said. "The key is finding old vine vineyards. There's enough Carignan out there for 600,000 cases. We'll never get there." Right now they're just under 10,000 cases, bottles and cans combined.

I tried their Carignan in the bottle a few weeks ago and liked it: it's vibrant, with a tart red plum character that's both refreshing and food-friendly. I don't know if that one had smoke taint also, and since I enjoyed it I don't care.

If you want to test your own threshhold, buy the Sans Carbonic Carignan here.

Read my feature from 2017 about how a Tinder date led to this canned-wine couple.

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

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

I am so proud of my worst 2020 stories about wine

I am immensely proud of the weakest stories I wrote in 2020. I was off my game for about half the year, and nobody told me they noticed.

People have noticed that I haven't been blogging, though, so here's why.

2020 was a difficult year for many people so I'm not special. I did not get Covid-19, fortunately, but I did have an abscess in my intestine that required two 8-day hospital stays and a very scary and painful (but fortunately successful) surgery. Before that I spent 3 months with an open wound in my side and a rubber hose coming out of that hole that I was constantly afraid of catching on a doorknob, necessitating another emergency-room visit. I couldn't shower, bend forward, lift anything, twist in any direction, or sleep more than a few hours at a time. I couldn't fully dress myself. Because of the infection risk I didn't leave the house except to go to the hospital. What I could do, fortunately, was talk on the phone or Zoom and write. And nobody noticed!

 I did, though. I was supposed to avoid stress so I spent the summer looking for softball stories that wouldn't upset anybody, especially me. (This worked until wine country caught fire, again.) I also did some work while on opioids -- if you find a typo, I blame the drugs -- and almost all of my work on short sleep.

Add it all together and this should have been my worst year professionally. But it wasn't, thanks to great support from Wine Searcher, where I am US editor. (Also a shout out to Wine Business Monthly, where I am a contributor: if you are a winemaker and want to know more about barrels click here.)

I look at the stories I did in my worst periods this year, and I know what I went through to do them. Again, I'm not special: everyone had challenges in 2020. One good point about journalism is that you can work despite physical challenges. I am fortunate that my own was temporary.

I'm not going to link to those stories, though. Instead, I'd like to share what I think are the best stories I did this year for Wine Searcher. A lot of my readers know me only through this blog, so these may be new for you. Many of them came before the morning my doctor called me and said, "Go to the emergency room right now," and some came after I was finally off the no-vegetables, no-fruit diet (the only perk of intestinal surgery is the 5-year-old boy's dream diet afterward. Burgers: fine. Chocolate mocha cake: great. Spinach and broccoli: NOT OK.).

My Best Wine Searcher Stories of 2020

The Editor and the Wine Competition: As long as I'm admitting I wasn't up to snuff at journalism for a  chunk of the year, I might as well admit I also failed at managing a wine competition panel. This is nostalgic for me because the meal I describe in Paris was the last meal I had in a restaurant, and ordering the Grand Marnier soufflĂ© did turn out to be the best decision I made in 2020.

Napa's Nights of Fire on the Mountain: I really can't take credit for this. Stu Smith's first-person account of fighting fires surrounding his winery is harrowing but like my own tale, has a happy ending.

Get Well Soon, Napa Valley: This was the first story I did post-surgery, which means it was the first story I did post-hose. (I call 2020 My Summer of Hose.) It's hard for me to have perspective on it because just getting in the car and going to Napa Valley after being confined to a bed or reclining chair for months was such a powerful emotional experience. But other people seemed to like it.

Crop Insurance Fears for Smoke-hit Vineyards: I was pretty sick when I wrote this and the writing isn't good. But this may be the most important story I wrote in 2020. There was a loophole that might have prevented grapegrowers from getting payment from their crop insurance. I pursued it, wrote about it, and then the federal Risk Management Agency closed that loophole. I got into journalism to do good but usually I bloviate about Grenache instead. This was satisfying.

Time for the U.S. to Follow the E.U.: U.S. wineries are hurting themselves with millennials by refusing to list ingredients. I've ranted about this before, but this time I found a good way to frame it.

The Wine Intelligentsia: Almost Always Wrong: This was the last rant I wrote in 2020 (don't worry, I plan to rant again in 2021). Readers often complain about clickbait but the fact is rants always get more clicks than news articles, and not just from me: the New York Times says its opinion columns are more popular than its news sections.

"Nobody Knows Anything About What Sells Wine"
: Another one I can't really take credit for. If you want a good story, just interview somebody who is a better writer than yourself. Randall Grahm is not only that, he's also refreshingly candid, even in what was a personally depressing time for him.

Gallo's Golden Quest to Conquer Cognac
: This just ran a few days ago. I think I'm the first person to report on Gallo's quest. After years of treating me with suspicion, Gallo opened up to me this year, and not just for this story: check out Four Gallo Employees Talk About Racism and Progress in the Wine Industry. I still hope to get a one-on-one interview with Gina Gallo some day. It's good to have goals.

Silver Oak Toppled at Premiere Napa Auction: In February I thought I was a badass journalist because I flew back home from Italy and drove right up to St. Helena to do this story. The hardship! What it doesn't say is that Napa Valley Vintners intentionally made it more difficult this year to report on this auction, taking down the board they used to have that posted all of the prices. You won't see these numbers in any other story on the event; NVV won't confirm or deny anything but the total take. I'm the only journalist who calculates the average bottle price. Yes, I'm proud of it. Premiere Napa is wine news and should be covered as such.

Finding Love Among the Grapevines: I'm a sucker for a love story. Who isn't?

California's Other Cabernet Strikes a Claim
: Same here. This started as a feature on Napa Valley Cabernet Franc specialist Lang & Reed but it turns out that there's a love story behind both varietals they make.

Napa's Own Game of Thrones Story: I'll be honest, I wrote this whole story for you, the reader, except the last line, which I wrote for the story's subject. And I feel great about that.

Landfill Woes Napa's Latest Concern: Leaving romance for the dump, this is a story where I piggybacked off of the Napa Register's reporting, but it's significant for me because it was the first post-surgery story where I started feeling a little feisty. And it is a helluva story. Radioactive waste in Napa Valley? Yikes.

Head for the Mountains: Busch Now Making Wine: "It turns out the Busches are the perfect combination: A guy who loves farming and a strong-willed woman who wants balanced wine, profits be damned." Plus I got to feed carrots to Clydesdales.

Sangiovese's Daddy Makes a Comeback: I love doing stories of indigenous grapes making a comeback, and this one inspired me to look up the fathers of famous Italians. Did you know what Christopher Columbus' father did? Now you will.

Paris Judgment Vineyard Steps into the Light
: I wrote this just before surgery and if this had been the last story I ever had published, I would be OK with it. This one includes the metastory of reporting it (I'm still grateful to Violet and Mike Grgich for getting back to me so quickly, as my surgery was looming) plus an anecdote about Leslie Rudd that I had been saving for years. It felt pretty final to finally use it. Also, the Bacigalupi Chardonnay that the story is about is the last wine I had before having to go off alcohol pre-surgery, and if it had been the last wine I ever had in my life, I would have been OK with that too.

Luckily, though, I had a great outcome, and I look forward to bringing you more stories in 2021. I also look forward to drinking every great wine I can get my hands on.

Two things a health scare will do for you: make you appreciate what you have. And make you realize that your time is finite.

We're in a pandemic. Wear a mask, wash your hands, keep your distance. And drink your best wines now, because, to quote the musical Rent, there is No Day But Today.

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

Friday, October 16, 2020

Endorsements for the Nov. 2020 election in San Francisco

Greetings. Hopefully most of you have already voted, but if not, I'm here for you.

Election endorsements are a tradition at The Gray Report because I think we don't talk (not scream) enough about political choices, and that's how we get dangerous extremists in office.

This year's ballot is a seminar in wealth economics. Government is not a business: it must provide services for free that cost the city or state money. Thus it must raise money through taxes. Taxes are a zero-sum game: when Donald Trump pays only $750 a year, other people have to pay more. Many of the propositions on this ballot involve privileged groups trying to avoid paying taxes. These groups include owners of buildings worth more than $10 million; CEOs who earn more than 100 times their company's entry-level salary; and the greedy homeowners who voted for Proposition 13 in 1978, locking in their property taxes at a low level until they sold, eventually plummeting the state's school system because of the budget cuts. They have decided underpaying their taxes in perpetuity on their home isn't enough. The chutzpah. Middle-class and working-class people do not have a ballot proposition this year to lower our taxes; for each one of these taxes that the privileged avoid, we will pay more. Go ahead: take a look.

Understanding the local races is more difficult this year because the San Francisco Chronicle  decided to make its endorsement editorials available to subscribers only, which makes zero sense to me. Do you want the people you endorse elected or not? Fortunately, even without a print publication, the San Francisco Bay Guardian continues to do the hard work of interviewing candidates and sharing its opinions with everyone. Thank you. I also looked at the endorsements of the LA Times, candidate statements on Smart Voter, and the candidates' websites.

Dear undecided voters: If you don't know who to vote for in the school board race, you're not alone. There's never enough information in these races; we'll work through it together. But if you haven't decided who to vote for for US President, please stay home.

US President: Joe Biden

Germans had one chance to vote Hitler out of office, and they didn't do it. This is our one chance.

US State Representative, District 12: Nancy Pelosi

I wish Pelosi had relinquished her leadership role before reaching 80 years old. She says this will be her final term in office, though, and I don't see any reason not to let her serve it out. This will be a highly contested seat in 2022, but this year her opponent isn't really qualified.

State Senator, District 11: Scott Wiener

The left likes to make fun of Wiener, but I like him, dating back to his campaign while on the Board of Supervisors to ticket double-parked cars. He's hard-working, sponsors a lot of legislation, and he's liberal by US standards if moderate by San Francisco standards. He's a pragmatist: one of his pushes in the legislature was for bars in SF to stay open until 4 a.m. We're supposed to be a world-class city, so why should we have small-town blue laws?

State Assembly Member, District 17: David Chiu

I don't actually like Chiu, who is too conservative for San Francisco, but he has no credible opposition. His opponent is Starchild, who describes himself thus: "I'm a companion (erotic service provider), pansexual, veg'n, freedom activist and aspiring novelist based in San Francisco, with a BA in journalism from San Francisco State University and a work background including stints in retail and movie theaters as well as being a warehouse worker, legal assistant, and enlisted member of the U.S. Army Reserves." I'm sure Starchild's services are needed in Sacramento, but I'm not sure they're needed while the legislature is in session.

Member, Board of Education: Matt Alexander, Mark Sanchez, Kevine Boggess, Michelle Parker

The school board race is one where it would be nice to know why the Chronicle made its recommendations. Instead I'm left with the Guardian's choices and the candidates' own websites, because most of them didn't bother to provide information to Smart Voter.

Alexander has a nice record as the head of a charter school for underprivileged students. Sanchez, an incumbent, is also a former teacher and principal. Boggess, an education policy director at a nonprofit, has a lot of endorsements. Parker, a former PTA board president, has all the mainstream Democratic politicians behind her. 

Member, Community College Board: Victor Olivieri, Marie Hurabiell, Shanell Williams, Tom Temprano

I always hate this election more than any other. And I'm not alone: half the eligible incumbents decided not to run for re-election. City College of San Francisco has been mismanaged for years, nearly going bankrupt and nearly losing its accreditation. Its board elections tend to draw ideologues and not people interested in governing. CCSF tries to do too many things to appease too many constituencies and historically has not taken budgeting seriously.

Olivieri and Hurabiell are the board members CCSF needs: Grownups whose first priority is balancing the budget for an organization that has run big deficits for years. This should be every candidate's priority. Please vote for Olivieri and Hurabiell, because it's our money and they keep squandering it.

You gotta pick four candidates. Williams and Temprano are incumbents, which isn't really a good thing on this board, but both the Guardian and the Chronicle endorse them and you gotta vote for somebody. 

Bart director, district 9: Bevan Dufty

These are difficult times for BART, with ridership way down. Dufty is one of those local Democrats who jumps from job to job after being term-limited off the Board of Supervisors. But he at least has a lot of local political experience and he has no credible opposition.

State propositions

Proposition 14, Stem cell re-funding: NO

In 2004, when the Bush administration made stem-cell research controversial for religious reasons, California voters stepped up and gave $3 billion to create a board that would dole out taxpayer money for stem-cell research. (I voted for it.) Sixteen years later -- a long time even by medical research standards -- that money hasn't led to a single FDA-approved product, and there have been questions about how the unelected board allocates the money, with some members able to profit from it. This proposition would throw another $6.5 billion in taxpayer money to the board with insufficient oversight. The state stepped up once to do the federal government's job, but we can't keep throwing that money down a hole.

Proposition 15, Commercial property reassessment: YES

In 1978, California homeowners passed Proposition 13 to lower their property taxes. An unintended consequence is that it also froze taxes on commercial property. Home taxes eventually go up because people sell their homes, but commercial real estate companies use a variety of methods to get around that. The Guardian reports that Donald Trump owns half of the Bank of America building, and he pays a tiny amount of taxes on it because its tax rate was frozen in 1978. Taxation is a zero-sum game: if Trump pays fewer taxes, you pay more. Vote yes to raise Trump's taxes (not that he'll pay them anyway, but let's give it a shot.)

Proposition 16, Repeal of affirmative action ban: NO

I'm going to lose some followers over this, but that's fine: that's why I do these posts, so we can discuss issues.

In 1996, California voters banned the use of race as a factor in university admissions, public contracting and public employment. We definitely needed affirmative action after decades of discrimination, but at some point it should end. The way to fight discrimination is with equal opportunity, not more discrimination. Affirmative action sees the world in black and white. Asian Americans are screwed by quota systems. And who decides who is white today, and thereby the least-favored people for university admissions? What about first-generation immigrants? Are Arabs white? Race is just not that simple.

University admissions should give advantages to students based on their economic circumstances. Look at the four key members of the Golden State Warriors' dynasty: Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. All four identify as black, though two have white mothers. Two of them were raised in economically depressed areas by single mothers. Two of them were the sons of NBA stars and were raised with every privilege. Should all four have been treated the same by university admissions departments because of their race, or should the economically underprivileged pair have been given the edge?

One more point I want to make on this issue: What we have learned since 2016 is that the most dangerous people in the United States are uneducated white people. Do we really want to set up a system to produce more of them?

Proposition 17, Voting rights for parolees: YES

In California, felons are not allowed to vote until they finish their parole. I don't see the reason for this. If they are on parole, they have been allowed to live and work as contributing members of society. Voting is part of that.

Proposition 18, Primary voting for 17-year-olds: YES

I don't like expanding voting rights beyond adults who are U.S. citizens, as called for in the Constitution. But primary elections are a little different, especially in this state, where the Democratic primary often decides the office. This bill would allow people who will be 18 at the time of the general election to participate in the primary election beforehand. It's a tiny expansion of voting rights to people who would have them anyway in just a few short months.

Proposition 19, Skirting property taxes: NO

This is an extension of the infamous Proposition 13. Homeowners who paid super-low taxes for decades would be able to buy and sell up to three different homes without ever having a fair tax assessment. Essentially, their ability to skirt taxes that the rest of us have to pay would be grandfathered in for life. Taxation is a zero-sum game. They've paid far less than their fair share, and they did nothing to earn it except to vote for their wallets at the expense of state schools. Don't keep rewarding them.

Proposition 20, Felonies for shoplifting: NO

This isn't an easy call for me. I dislike criminal justice issues being decided by ballot referendums, because voters generally are too bloodthirsty for punishment and not focused on rehabilitation. This proposal fits into that frame: it would allow prosecutors to charge felony theft for items over $250, rather than the current $950 limit, and would add more types of crimes (including hate crimes and aggravated assault) to the list of those that are not eligible for parole. Normally it would be a hard no for me. But most grocery-store chains in the state are supporting it. In 2014 and again in 2016, California voters passed laws liberalizing incarceration policies; the stores say shoplifting has spiked because there are no consequences. Moreover, organized looting has become a thorn in the image of the protest movement; protesters march with legitimate beefs during the day, but as soon as darkness falls, vanloads of professional thieves who have nothing to do with social justice show up to break store windows and steal whatever they can carry. There's not much motivation for overworked police to make arrests because if an individual member of the gang is only carrying $900 worth of stuff, it's a misdemeanor. I would support redefining felony theft at $250 if the bill did only that.

Why I can't support the bill as is: California's prisons remain overcrowded, and this bill's provisions limiting parole are a mistake. We have to make some difficult choices about who to let out, and some of those choices will be wrong. To me, this bill doesn't help the situation by taking the decision about individuals out of the hands of prosecutors and the parole board.

Proposition 21, Rent control: YES

This should be a no-brainer. In 1995, California passed the Costa-Hawkins act, which forbid local cities from imposing rent control on vacant apartments. You want to know why working-class people can't afford to live in San Francisco, not to mention Napa and a number of other cities? This is why. The bill would simply restore to local municipalities the ability to pass tenant-friendly policies like rent freezes. We're going to have a national homelessness crisis next year because of the pandemic if Congress doesn't get its act together on rent and evictions. We already have a homelessness crisis in California. Passing this proposition is a step to addressing it. 

Proposition 22, Uber/Lyft rewriting the law in their favor: NO

Should we let companies write the laws governing them? If your answer to that is "no," vote NO on this proposition.

Last year the state passed a law giving workers' rights like sick leave and health insurance to people who work fulltime without being called fulltime employees. Two of the main offenders in exploiting their workers are Uber and Lyft. They have spent more than $130 million on ads pushing this proposition, which rewrites the law the way they want it: with no rights for drivers, no matter how many hours they work.

The original law had some flaws, notably as applied to freelance writers, but the legislature has moved to fix those. If there are other flaws regarding Uber's and Lyft's business, the legislature can handle them. Putting this proposition on the ballot is nothing less than an attempt by Uber and Lyft to use their investors' money to write their own laws. Don't be a party to it.

Proposition 23, Dialysis clinics: NO

Here's another greedy self-interested law, in this case pushed by a health care workers union. The law would require a doctor to be on site at dialysis clinics. But that isn't needed, and it will both drive up the cost of dialysis and possibly put it out of reach for some people who need it.

The Guardian raises another concern: this is the kind of law used in many states to restrict abortion, by requiring, for example, that doctors performing abortions have admitting privileges at a local hospital. To be clear, abortion is not on the ballot here. But the Guardian is right in saying that the nitty gritty of medical procedures is not something we should get in the habit of legislating by ballot initiative.

Proposition 24, Deceptive privacy law: NO

This law sounds like a great idea, but it's a Trojan horse, giving tech companies more ability to collect your personal information, and allowing them to block you from using apps if you don't opt in to such practices. Like the previous two ballot measures, this is a self-interested measure passed by an industry that wants to fool voters into increasing its profit margins. Don't fall for it. 

Proposition 25, Bail reform: YES

California is already moving away from cash bail for people charged with crimes to a system that bases their release on whether or not they are a flight risk or a danger to the community. Requiring cash bail hits low-income people hardest, often causing the most vulnerable people to lose their job or enter a cycle of debt when they can least afford it. One of my strongest beliefs about criminal justice is that the US focuses too much on punishment and not enough on the reality that most people will get out of prison eventually, and we'll all be better off if we ease their transition to society. Eliminating cash bail is a step in the right direction. If someone is convicted, lock them up, but until then, let them keep working and providing for their family, because otherwise you're encouraging them to get money however they can, and that's not good for anyone.

City and county ballot propositions

Proposition A, Homelessness and parks bond: NO

It's tempting vote for this measure for a $487 million bond -- half of which can be passed on to tenants -- because it sounds good. But during a pandemic, with city revenues down, do we need to spend another $239 million on parks? Homelessness is a huge problem, but it's a state problem: does San Francisco have to spend $207 million on facilities for substance abuse and mental health? In 2018 California voters approved $2 billion in bonds for supportive housing for people with mental illness. Where is San Francisco's share of that $2 billion? Measures like this can act as a homeless magnet, which is why we need statewide action, not this huge local expenditure.

I supported the 2018 city bond for $425 million to repair the seawall. That had to be done. This bill is a mishmash of parks projects that aren't absolutely necessary and homeless services that should be paid for by the state. Vote no and let the board of supervisors come back to us in the next election with a cleaner bond bill that separates two unconnected issues.

Proposition B, Extra bureaucracy: NO

This proposal would increase the ratio of managers to workers at city hall by splitting the Department of Public Works in two, and would increase the difficulty of getting anything done by creating a political commission with appointees coming from the mayor's office and the Board of Supervisors. The Guardian implies it was created because the former head of Public Works was arrested and charged with fraud. The problem there was that former mayor Ed Lee removed oversight of the department. Obviously it needs oversight, but this is overkill. Just ask Mayor London Breed to appoint someone in her office to oversee Public Works' contracts. Simple. I would vote yes for just an oversight board, but splitting DPW in two is an unnecessary overreaction.

Citizenship ceremoney
Citizenship ceremony

Proposition C, Allows non-citizens on public boards: NO

The U.S. is one of the more open countries in the world about allowing citizenship. I say this as someone who lived in Japan, where earning citizenship is extremely difficult. Citizenship brings rights and privileges and that includes the privilege to take part in governmental policy boards. Some people say that non-citizens are affected by policy decisions and so should be able to take part in the decision-making. Sure -- all they have to do is become citizens. I don't want people who haven't made that level of commitment to living in the United States to make decisions about the future of our city.

Proposition D, Sheriff's department oversight board: YES

I'm not entirely sure this is necessary. In San Francisco, the sheriff's department is really only responsible for the jail, and we don't read all that much bad news about the jail. But if we've learned one thing in 2020, it's that all sworn officers licensed to carry firearms should have oversight. 

Proposition E, Police staffing: YES

Probably thanks to the police union, since 1994 the city charter has required the city to have 1,971 sworn police officers. I don't know whether that's too many (possibly, if you're going to have police reform and farm out tasks to other agencies) or too few, but I do know that it's a silly random number codified into law. Let's fix that.

Proposition F, Business tax reform: YES

We can't get back the hundreds of millions of dollars that tech companies should have been paying but haven't because of city tax breaks. But we can try to fix the broken system that allows them to pay less than their fair share. You want to address homelessness? Start by taxing the tech companies, not apartment renters. This law would actually increase the number of small businesses exempt from taxation while increasing gross receipts taxes on the tech giants. If the tech giants want to leave town, I hear San Antonio's nice. When are your staff vacating their apartments?

Proposition G, 16 year olds voting: NO

I'm sorry but most people at age 16 are simply not old enough to consider the issues for voting. Plus, I don't see any advantage to this bill, and the disadvantages could become quickly apparent in school board elections, which are already difficult enough without candidates having to pander to students.

Proposition H, Planning changes without oversight: NO

There was no public hearing on these proposed 90 pages of changes to the planning code that would deregulate land use in commercial districts. Are they good ideas or not? This is a topic for a multi-hour hearing to tease out all the possible ramifications. Instead, we get 30 words on a ballot. That's not enough information to go on. Vote NO and make supporters explain what they want and why they want it.

Proposition I, Higher tax on $10 million real estate sales: YES

Taxation is a zero-sum game. This bill would increase taxes on properties that sell for more than $10 million. Ask yourself, who better to get more money from than somebody who just sold a building for $20 million? If this doesn't pass, we'll get that tax money from the working class instead. 

Proposition J, Parcel tax for schools: YES

A similar $288 parcel tax passed in 2018 but legal questions over the need for a simple majority or supermajority threw it into doubt. This is the same bill, essentially, and the schools need the money.

Proposition K, Permitting affordable housing: YES

This bill allows the city to build up to 10,000 affordable housing units. It's just the first step, as it doesn't provide any funding. But it's necessary thanks to an antiquated element of the state Constitution that requires voter approval before building any low-income housing.

Proposition L, Overpaid CEO tax: YES

This measure would increase city business taxes on any company where the CEO makes more than 100 times what the lowest-paid fulltime worker makes. Not only will it bring in more revenue; it might make more people think about how overpaid CEOs are. If you or I have a bad week at work, we'll get fired, but a CEO can drive a company to the brink of bankruptcy with bad decisions and walk away with a $100 million golden parachute. What -- you say that companies whose CEOs make more than $500 million a year won't want to locate in San Francisco? Like I said, I heard San Antonio's nice. Can we have your spot in the bakery line?

Proposition RR, Caltrain sales tax: NO

Caltrain mostly benefits people living on the Peninsula, where average incomes are much higher than in the city. Now that Caltrain is low on funds, it wants a regional sales tax administered by San Mateo County. But because more shops are in San Francisco, we'll pay the brunt of it. No thanks. You have the money down there; you pay for it.

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