Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The adventures of opening bottles, starring Speyburn's father's day package

After I applied antibiotic ointment to my thumb, and put away my large toolkit with the wrenches and pliers, I sat down to enjoy Speyburn's father's day package gift.

The idea is appealing: a 750 ml bottle of Speyburn 10-year Scotch, and a 100 ml bottle of water from the same springs  the Scotch is made from. Scotch is not only distilled from water; it also is usually bottled with water to lower the alcohol percentage. Maybe I could taste the similarity?

First, though, I had to get the damn thing open. The Scotch is easy. There's a little plastic capsule, and a nice resealable cork closure. Somebody put some thought into packaging the Scotch.

The water, though -- it's a water hazard. The 100 ml bottle was sealed with a screw cap and a jagged piece of metal  extended from it. I tried very gently turning it; nothing. I  grabbed it with a towel and turned it; nothing. I whacked the screwcap with a butter knife a few times and then tried turning it (pro tip: this often works on recalcitrant wine bottles.) Nothing. So I got out the tool kit.

Eventually, using an adjustable wrench, I was able to get the water bottle open. Writing about wine and spirits is fun because you learn a little about a lot of things. I know that a screwcapping machine must be precisely calibrated. For a run of 100,000 bottles of cheap rosé, it's important to get it right. But for a few 100 ml bottles of spring water for a whisky promotion, it just wasn't well-sealed. I don't know how I cut my thumb, but it wasn't serious; a little Scotch and water would be fine medicine.

I like Speyburn, a Speyside Scotch with a gentle mouthfeel and a judicious amount of peat. It's very good value at under $30 in a world where whisky prices keep going up. It's not the most complex dram you'll find but it's balanced enough to drink straight, yet not so expensive that I feel bad about having it in a Rob Roy or a current fave, a Rusty Nail (somebody sent me a bottle of Drambuie and it's making frequent appearances in my NBA playoff cocktails. I like to imagine Draymond Green barking at the referees in a Scottish accent. Fewer technicals if they can't understand him.)

I tasted the water, and thought, well, that's good water. It has depth and some body. I don't taste Speyburn in it -- in fact I taste very little -- but I like the mouthfeel and can see why one would want to add this to Scotch.

Then I read the fine print on the hazardous 100 ml bottle of water: "Uisge Source waters come from springs close to the popular distilleries in the whisky regions of Scotland. From the Cairngorms Well in Moray comes a soft, low mineral water, typical of the waters used by Scotland's Speyburn Distilleries."

Well that just destroys the whole illusion of water-Scotch relationship, doesn't it? First, Speyburn distilleries, plural. Second, it's just water from some well in the area.  I risked injury for just some neighborhood water? It's like going to see the Loch Ness Monster and getting a sodden Bigfoot instead. It's not the same!

I'm sipping some Speyburn neat as I type this, and I am feeling mollified. It's still a nice looking-package and it probably works as a father's day gift because 1) Your dad won't read the fine print, and 2) When you tell him he'll need his tool kit to open it, that's a feature, not a bug.

Buy the gift package here. 

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

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Zos Halo wine preserver is a worthless gadget

I'll keep this brief. The Zos Halo wine preserver, which purports to preserve an open bottle of wine by removing the oxygen from it, is a worthless high-tech gadget.

I have tried two Zos Halos, both supplied by the company for review, and did not find any practical use for either of them.

In both, short battery life was a problem. My first Halo lasted only one use, a bottle of wine that I tried to preserve for two weeks. The battery failed and so did the wine, which tasted flat.

For the second Halo, I tried using it for shorter periods of two or three days. The two LR 44 batteries still only lasted for 16 total days of use. You could work with that if there was a benefit.

But I didn't taste any. I tried opening two identical bottles of wine, pouring out half of each and resealing the bottles. One bottle I sealed with the Zos Halo. The other I sealed by sticking the cork back in.

After two days, I detected no difference. After three days, I detected no difference. After a week, they were slightly different -- but neither tasted fresh enough for me to want to drink it. 

Zos has been heavily pitching this gadget as a gift for weddings or Mother's Day. It's understandable: it's not as expensive as a Coravin, and in theory it's more permanent than a bottle of wine.

But it's junk. If you give it as a gift the recipient will play with it for a bottle or two and then put it in the back of a dusty closet and forget it forever. Maybe this is true of most wedding gifts: ice cream makers, bread slicers. But at least those work.

I intended to review this gadget for Wine Searcher because if it worked, it would be a great boon to enophiles. Instead, I am doing my civic duty with this post. Don't waste your money on a Zos Halo.

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

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Shocking consensus winner in 1978 comparative tasting

At harvest time in September 1978, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin signed a historic peace pact
Last month I was invited to a blind tasting in Seattle of 1978 Bordeaux-style reds. The wines had all been purchased from a man who stored them in perfect conditions in an underground cellar.

Doug Charles
Doug Charles, co-owner of the suburban wine shop Compass Wines, bought the whole collection when the owner decided quite suddenly to sell his house. Charles said the wines had been bought for drinking, not investing, and there were many one-of-a-kind bottles. He'll sell most of them at Compass but he noticed that he had 10 single bottles from 1978 and thought it would be interesting to invite some industry folks.

I'm not sure how I rated an invite. I sat next to Bob Betz, who had been an assistant winemaker at Chateau Ste Michelle at the time and worked on some of the wines in the tasting. Gary Figgins, founder of Leonetti Cellar, was also there. Leonetti's 1978 Cabernet put Washington state on the world wine map when Wine & Spirits called it the best Cabernet in the world. It's nice to be the least dignified guest.

Gary Figgins
We had two Bordeaux second-growths:
Chateau Montrose Saint-Estèphe 1978 (no back label; no alcohol statement)
Grand Vin de Leoville du Marquis de Las Cases Saint-Julien 1978 (11 to 14% alcohol)

Four wines from Washington:
Chateau Ste Michelle Washington State Cabernet Sauvignon 1978 (12 1/2%)
Chateau Ste Michelle Washington State Merlot 1978 (12%)
Leonetti Cellar Washington State Cabernet Sauvignon 1978 (13%)
Ste. Michelle Chateau Reserve Cold Creek Vineyards Benton County Washington Cabernet Sauvignon 1978 (12 1/2%)

And four California wines:
Charles Krug Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 1978 (12%)
Franciscan Vineyards Estate Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 1978 (12.9%)
Louis M. Martini Private Reserve California Cabernet Sauvignon 1978 (12 1/2%)
Sebastiani North Coast Counties Cabernet Sauvignon 1978 (12.9%)

Nobody billed this as The Judgment of Seattle because nobody can claim that these were the very best wines from California and Bordeaux at the time. The two Bordeaux second-growths were well-regarded, as was Louis Martini Private Reserve. But they weren't carefully chosen to represent their areas: they just happened to be the one-off bottles this particular collector had left.

As for the Washington wines, Leonetti, unknown on its release, became a superstar, and Ste Michelle's "Chateau Reserve" line was its high end at the time. But the two other Chateau Ste Michelle wines were their supermarket line, which Charles believes were priced under $5. The Sebastiani was also probably in that price range; the others would have cost more.

Most of the experts, including me, tried to pinpoint which wines were which and often failed. But not always. One wine was bretty as hell, with no other flavors remaining, and we all correctly deduced that it was French.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

What the Aquilinis are up to on Red Mountain

Aquilini Brands president Barry Olivier
Since 2013, when a mysterious man in a turban outbid a host of wineries at an auction for 670 acres of unplanted land on Red Mountain, the Washington wine industry has been wondering: who the heck are these people, and what are they up to?

The man in a turban, whose name I do not know, worked for the Aquilinis, a Canadian family of billionaires that owns the Vancouver Canucks hockey team and its arena. They're reportedly the world's largest farmers and processors of blueberries and cranberries, and they also own real-estate developments and several fine-dining restaurants in Vancouver. (Here are more details on Francesco Aquilini's Wikipedia page.)

But this is their first foray into wine, and it's a huge one, with important implications for the Washington wine industry. The Red Mountain AVA is Washington's trendiest region, responsible for many of its highest-rated wines. But Red Mountain is tiny: only 4040 acres total, with about 2400 planted. Of the Aquilinis' 670 acres, 535 are in the AVA. The Aquilinis are now Red Mountain's largest grape farmers by volume, and they will play a huge role in determining how Red Mountain is perceived in the future.

But when the Aquilinis harvested their first crop last year, they couldn't find buyers because they have so few contacts in the industry.

Hence this blog post. I did a story for Wine-Searcher about Red Mountain AVA for consumers because the wines merit it. This post is basically for the Washington wine industry. I spent a whole day with both Aquilini vineyard teams last month. Everybody else I talked to before or after asked, what are the Aquilinis up to? Well, I'll tell you.

There are two separate Aquilini wine operations

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Truly great old-vine Grenache for Pinot Noir lovers

Like growing grapes on the beach: Yangarra's High Sands vineyard. Courtesy Drinkster
Grenache is a wine I rarely order. To me, when it's good, it's meh. I like Grenache rosé, but too often I find varietal Grenache red wine to be high-alcohol fruit punch: nothing wrong with it, but I can drink better.

When Grenache is great, though, it's phenomenal. It's like a great Pinot Noir in that it's medium-bodied, not overpowering, but with pretty fruit and good complexity. Ordinary Grenache is a change-of-pace wine for fans of Zinfandel and Shiraz. Great Grenache is very rare, but it's special.

"John Alban told me, 'Everybody wants to make Pinot Noir. It's an overindulged princess'," said Richard Betts MS, who sold some other wine projects to buy an old Grenache vineyard.

In contrast, great Grenache is a commoner who grows up to be queen. I'll never forget the first time I had Château Rayas. I didn't know Grenache could be that good. But Rayas averages $680 a bottle on Wine-Searcher, and that price is actually going up with each new release.

The price for Rayas gives a little context for the five outstanding Grenaches I'm about to recommend.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Vintners behaving badly: Huneeus charged in college admissions bribery case

Agustin Francisco Huneeus. From his company's website
This is a story of wealth and privilege, and how a public appearance last week by a man fighting a proposed Napa County environmental law ended up being surprisingly prophetic.

The federal case is so big -- 50 people were charged in six states -- that most individual details will be skimmed over. Here, I'm going to present some transcripts from conversations taped by law enforcement to show exactly what one man is accused of doing.

Agustin Francisco Huneeus, 53, president of Huneeus Vintners, was charged Tuesday in the college admissions bribery case filed by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Huneeus, charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud, is a very successful vintner. His father built Concha y Toro from a small winery into Chile's largest. Huneeus himself was chief executive of Constellation Brands' fine-wine division before forming Huneeus Vintners with his father in 2004. The company owns Quintessa in Napa Valley as well as Flowers in Sonoma County and Benton-Lane in Oregon.

I like Huneeus; he has a rakish charm. My wife was dismayed when she learned he had been charged; she remembers his kindness and sense of humor. And I like his company's wines. All three of its main wineries are known for the kind of high-quality balanced wines I most enjoy.

He has a problem now, though, that goes beyond the charges themselves.

More than 90 percent of people charged with a federal crime plead guilty. And the great majority of people who plead not guilty are found guilty. The federal court system is stacked against defendants, way more than state courts.

But Huneeus has good reason to fight the charges, despite the odds. If he is found guilty of a felony, he may be forced to divest himself of the wine business he has helped build. State and federal laws differ on this, and I am not a legal expert; this is a question for another day.

For today, the question is, how bad is it for a parent to try to help his kid at any cost?

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Let's awamori! Okinawa's native drink finds a home in San Francisco

Modern awamori production; not so different from pre-WWII (see below). Courtesy Voyagin
Yoshi Tome
Awamori is a really interesting beverage, historically and culturally. Yoshi Tome, owner of one of the most successful sushi restaurants in the San Francisco bay area, has decided to refocus one restaurant's menu to show it off.

Tome has owned Sushi Ran in Sausalito since 1986. The fine sake list at Sushi Ran has been, for many area residents, their first introduction to premium sake. But sake is not where his heart lies drink-wise.

Tome is from Okinawa, where awamori is the traditional drink of choice. He is a fan; he likes to relax with a glass of very well-aged awamori from his private stash.

Awamori suffered from World War II as much as any cultural product and has still not really recovered. But we have come to an era in liquor appreciation where what was once seen as its greatest weakness -- single distillation, instead of double -- may now have become a strength.

When Tome left Japan for the U.S., awamori was at its lowest ebb ever. Japanese made fun of it as firewater; a more primitive version of shochu, which was just beginning to rise in popularity.

This was an era when Japanese looked down on Okinawa in general. The onetime independent island nation of Ryukyu was annexed by Japan in 1868. U.S. forces took the islands in extremely bloody fighting in 1945 that killed one-third of the civilian population. The U.S. ruled Okinawa until 1972, when we handed it back to Japan. Okinawa had an independence movement (and still does) but Japanese in Tokyo tended to look paternalistically on the islands; not until the Okinawan music scene caught on throughout Japan did the islands really get respect.