Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Sake by subscription: late millennial founds online sake shop

Genki Ito
Many American attempts at bringing sake to people are lame: some entrepreneur selling overpriced second-rate sake in a fancy bottle.

In contrast, Tippsy is the best online U.S. sake store I've seen since True Sake. Tippsy, which launched last November, is an easy-to-use site and has a legit selection of good sakes at reasonable prices.

It also has a subscription service that seems like a great way to bring new drinkers to sake. For $59 a month, shipping included, you get a box of three 300 ml bottles. You can reorder larger bottles of whichever ones you like.

I was impressed enough with Tippsy's selection to call its founder, Genki Ito. Here's an edited version of our conversation.

The Gray Report: What made you decide to start a website selling sake?

Ito: I think I can reach the existing demand for sake drinkers. There aren't many Japanese supermarkets that sell sake in the US unless you're living in a big city like Los Angeles. Some people go to nice restaurants and try sake and they become interested in buying good sake, but they don't have any clue of where to buy sake.

It's still small demand, but eventually I'm trying to convert millennial drinkers to sake drinkers. That's what this sake club is all about, giving opportunity for new drinkers to try different flavors. Sake comes in different flavor profiles just like wine.

Gray: You're a millennial yourself. Is that what inspired you to do the subscription?

Ito: I'm 35, a late millennial. I came to the US 10 years ago for a job at Nishimoto Trading. It's a Japanese importer, the largest in the US. I started my career in Hawaii, moved to Los Angeles, moved to New York, came back to Los Angeles. I finished my MBA at USC. I've been in this business and seen the growing demand for sake. There's nobody marketing sake very well.

Gray: What is Tippsy doing to market sake that hasn't been done in the past?

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Why Bordeaux, for once, is evolving faster than Napa

Napa Valley is on top of the wine world. Other regions struggle to get people to spend more for wine. Napa has set consumer expectations so effectively that people think nothing of paying more than $100 for a Cabernet Sauvignon made from purchased fruit. So far, Napa seems impervious to the stormclouds over the high-end wine industry.

I've been thinking about Napa and its future in the wake of Bordeaux's decision last week to authorize seven new wine grapes, including two famous grapes from Portugal, Touriga Nacional and Alvarinho (aka Albariño).

Bordeaux is way more conservative than Napa, where wineries can try something new at any time. For Bordeaux, which is still marketing on the basis of a classification done in 1855, expanding the allowable number of wine grapes is revolutionary.

And apparently it had little to do with what's happening right now. Sales of lesser Bordeaux wines haven't kept pace with the first growths but that has been ongoing for years. Bordeaux wineries aren't looking to add Touriga Nacional because they think they can sell more wine with it.

Bordeaux is not immune to sales initiatives; that's why it recently added another category of rosé, Clairet. But the point of allowing Touriga Nacional and Alvarinho is because Bordeaux chateaux are worried about the future.

They see Merlot, their workhorse grape, ripening too fast in hot years, and there are more hot years all the time. They want to plant grapes that better handle heat. They're not going to release a varietal Touriga Nacional. They want to blend it with Cabernet and Merlot to continue making elegant, complex red wines as the world continues to get hotter.

And they can do that, seamlessly, because their wines will still be called Bordeaux. I noticed that new grapes are allowed, but most people will not.

This is very different from Napa Valley, which already grows Zinfandel as well as anywhere in the world but is cutting back on plantings of it when it could instead be expanding.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Bourbon cask-finished Calvados: a crossover idea that works

New American oak in wine has a certain reputation, but it's a different story when the barrels are used.

This is what makes Bourbon cask-finished Calvados interesting. You might think it's going to taste woodier than ordinary Calvados, but it doesn't. In fact, it's a fine fit.

Boulard released a small batch, just 500 cases globally, of Calvados finished in Bourbon casks. All Calvados is aged in oak, but this spirit is unusual because France is full of French oak, whereas Bourbon must by law be aged in charred white American oak.

American oak tends to give strong flavors of vanilla, and a slight sweetness. It's a huge part of the reason Bourbon has been so phenomenally successful for the last decade: those are popular flavors.

Strong vanilla might overpower the fruit flavors of Calvados, which is apple brandy from Normandy. But just a hint, along with a light sweetness? It's not hard to see how that can work.

In fact, it does. Boulard Calvados Bourbon Cask Finish is fine straight. It's not as complex as the greatest of Calvadoses (Calvadi?), but it has pleasant apple flavor and is smooth enough to sip.

The best use for this, though, could be in cocktails, as a substitute for whiskey in an Old Fashioned or similar spiritous drink. It has just enough structure from the oak to pull off the substitution and it gives the drink a delightful apple character. At under $60 a bottle, you can afford to do this at home. That may sound expensive, but my onetime go-to Calvados, a 6-year-old, now costs double that.

Boulard says this is just the beginning of a 12-bottle series of different finishes. Yikes! I'm not sure most of these are going to work. I live in fear of cachaça cask-finished Calvados.

But I understand the initiative. Calvados is one of the world's great spirits but it isn't getting much attention in an era when whiskey is hot, mezcal is even hotter and rum seems to be making a comeback. The traditional means of drinking Calvados -- straight, at room temperature -- holds it back in today's spirits market, where basically everything that sells, sells on the rocks. Cognac makers have embraced cocktails. Calvados has a lot to offer mixologists, but it isn't in very many classic cocktail recipes so it isn't front of mind.

If Bourbon casks can help the Cognac industry find a new generation, hurray for another success from the great France-US alliance.

Half of the 500 cases of this were sent to the US market. Buy it here.

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

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Cannabis as a farm product: an interview with Autumn Shelton of Autumn Brands

Autumn Shelton in the Autumn Brands greenhouse
Cannabis is quickly becoming big business, but it gets further every day from farming. The trendiest cannabis products are all heavily processed so that they're more like day-glo Cheetos than green leafy weeds.

That might be the future of much of the business, but in these early days of legal cannabis farming in California, there are still people making a living selling their product more-or-less as is. Autumn Shelton, co-founder of Autumn Brands in Santa Barbara County, is one such farmer.

Autumn Brands currently sells almost exclusively flower -- the dried cannabis itself, for smoking. No lozenges, chocolates or other concoctions. The company prides itself on the quality of its strains. I had a chance to sample three of the strains before interviewing Shelton and I'm a big proponent of its classic Sour Diesel, and a fan of its Chocolate Hashberry as well.

A few days before my phone interview with Shelton, the Los Angeles Times published a story about residents in Carpinteria, where Autumn Brands is located, complaining about the smell from cannabis farms. That was on both of our minds when we chatted. Here is an edited version of our conversation (which was not done after sampling the product, at least on my end; you can tell by the absence of "uh ....")

The Gray Report: How much resistance do you get to the idea of farming cannabis?

Autumn Shelton: The odor has been an issue for a number of years. About 12 of us have got this very good odor control system, and another two have a different one. The problem is there's still 10 to 20 farms that don't have odor control. Some people in the community are frustrated and that's understandable. What's unfortunate is that this group seems to be going after the compliant ones that have the odor control.

Gray: Where are the main cannabis areas of Santa Barbara County, compared to the main wine growing areas?

Shelton: The wine industry is up in the northern part of the county. They have their own issues with cannabis because odor control is not required up there. But it is affecting the wine industry because the odor can be in the air for miles.

Gray: I've been reading that the cannabis growing industry has expanded so much that there's a risk of a glut of weed with not enough buyers. Are you seeing that?

Shelton: There's always a risk of too many cultivators and not enough market for it. Cannabis is just like any other market. It shifts. In cannabis, the outdoor market peaks in October. They have one harvest, all year. And the product floods into the market and prices just plummet at that time. Then in the spring, the outdoor product starts to go away and the prices start to go up again and the market starts to go up again. We've seen this before. Right now we're in spring/summer. Prices just keep going up up up. We get calls all day (from buyers).

Gray: Is there still a lot of competition from unlicensed growers?

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Some countries' wine is not as green as you think

Is this vineyard environmentally friendly? If it's not certified organic, how would I know? Answer: I wouldn't.
New Zealand has built its wine export business in the US on two things: a potent, tropical style of Sauvignon Blanc, and a green image.

At least one of those is true.

The American Association of Wine Economists released a simple statistical tweet yesterday, Organic Share of National Grape Area. It is what it sounds like: the percentage of organic vineyards for each country.

It's far from a perfect stat. First, it includes both table grapes and wine grapes. This helps some nations that take their foods seriously, while hurting the U.S.

Second, it's only certified organic vineyards. I can hear New Zealand's protest as I type this, "But we're sustainable." (Whatever that means.)

And third, it's not an indictment of any single grapegrower or winery. Just because Portugal has the lowest percentage of organic grapes of any major wine-producing nation doesn't mean there aren't some Portuguese vineyards doing all the right things for their customers and the Earth.

With those provisos out of the way, here are some shocking takeaways, after the table itself:

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.