Friday, January 21, 2022

Lisa Perrotti-Brown makes some interesting accusations, and maybe solves the Wine Advocate sake mystery

Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW

Longtime readers of The Gray Report may remember that in 2016, I discovered an unusual situation whereby every sake rated 90 points or more by the Wine Advocate was available at one retailer that sold only those sakes. It was as if the retailer, which I later learned seemed to have a connection to Robertparker.co.jp, had prior knowledge of which sakes the Advocate would recommend, so it could corner the market and raise prices.

At the time, Wine Advocate Editor-in-Chief Lisa Perrotti-Brown said she would investigate, but never released any results of the investigation.

Earlier this week, she may have revealed what happened.

Perrotti-Brown has only worked for one wine ratings organization: The Wine Advocate, where she was Editor-in-Chief from 2012 until last year, when she quit to go solo.

In launching her new project, The Wine Independent, Perrotti-Brown issued a press release and did interviews with writers from The Drinks Business and Wine-Searcher (not me.) In all three of these opportunities to speak out, Perrotti-Brown leveled some interesting accusations about ratings organizations. The wine world isn't as obsessed with the Wine Advocate as we were before Robert Parker retired, but nonetheless I'm surprised this hasn't been bigger news.

This is a story she seemingly wants to tell. But she might be afraid of being sued by her former employer, which is now owned by The Michelin Guide, which has been accused of ethical breaches for its food guide. It's worth noting that Robert Parker recruited Perrotti-Brown to the Advocate -- she started writing a column for the publication in 2008, before he sold it -- and Parker's personal ethics were always impeccable.

Let's start with her press release:

Perrotti-Brown and (partner Johan) Berglund seek a return to the high ethical standards initially championed by Robert M. Parker, Jr. back when he started The Wine Advocate in 1978 ...

"Still, numerous conflicts of interest have come to light in recent years, such as selling event tables to wineries and score previews to retailers through ultra-premium subscriptions. Some supposedly reputable publications – ones that claim to be independent - are guilty of such practices. As a result, faith in wine reviews has been eroded to the point where buyers no longer know who they can trust.”

Hmm, score previews through ultra-premium subscriptions. Well, that would explain the sake mystery, right?

But as I said at the time, score previews for sake are a small market. Imagine how much retailers might be willing to pay to know Bordeaux scores, if there's a possibility to buy futures before the ratings are released?

Here's what The Drinks Business article says:

Perrotti-Brown told db that such “shenanigans” were the source of “large amounts of money” for wine criticism titles


But there's a bigger ethical problem she hints at, much bigger than selling scores to retailers or semi-blackmailing wineries to buy event tables.

What if a 95-point score can be bought?


Here's what she told Don Kavanagh at Wine-Searcher (hi Don!):

There are other models now where you get wineries to pay huge amounts of money – I mean, thousands of dollars – for an event table, or to do this or that. And that's happening behind the scenes, and everybody's like "Oh, yeah, no, they don't do pay-to-play, you know, there's none of that going on". It's just hidden and nobody realizes.

We all know the shenanigans that go on, but I'd say, 90-95 percent of consumers have no idea that any of this is going on – all they see is a score, and they just believe that it's got some meaning behind it. But the problem is, you know, the penny is starting to drop [with consumers], because they're starting to say "What's the big deal about this 95-point experience that I'm supposed to be getting? This is a mediocre wine at best." What's going to happen is wine criticism is going to become meaningless. So because there is too much emphasis on scores, scores are being inflated, you don't know what's behind those scores in terms of agendas, and ultimately the consumers are being had. They're, they're the ones that are getting a bad experience when they follow scores. And that's just wrong.

It's possible to read the criticism of event tables as a criticism of Wine Spectator, which (pre-pandemic) staged a huge event every year called the Wine Experience. Winery people have bitched to me for a long time that they feel pressured to participate in Wine Spectator's shindig.

It's not just Spectator; independent critic James Suckling, a Spectator alumnus, hosts "Great Wines" grand tastings. Vinous, run by Advocate alumnus Antonio Galloni, hosts wine events as well. Wine events are a good way for wine ratings organizations to make money.

Is there a connection between participation in events and the ratings a winery receives? People including me have tried to prove one, but I haven't seen it proven yet. You could read Perrotti-Brown's criticism as being leveled at other organizations.

But let me say this again: Perrotti-Brown hasn't worked at these other organizations. She has only worked at The Wine Advocate, which also hosts events called Matter of Taste. So while she might be leveling criticism at a ratings-industry trend, the fact is she only has inside knowledge about one organization.

As she said, you don't know what's behind those scores in terms of agendas. But she does. And she sounds like she really, really wants to tell us.

Whenever you're ready, Ms. Perrotti-Brown, I am all ears.


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

Monday, January 17, 2022

Endorsements (with bonus rant): San Francisco school board recall election February 2022

Total Recall!


There are three races on this ballot, but one is much more important and attention-getting than the others, and will get the bulk of this post.

Let's do the easier ones first:


State Assembly District 17 special primary
: Bilal Mahmood

This is ironic. The position is open because David Chiu, who beat Chris Campos for an assembly seat in 2014, decided to take the San Francisco City Attorney job last fall, as he would have been term-limited out of the assembly this year. Thus we have four elections for this seat this year: this February primary and an April general election between the top two in this primary (all four are Democrats) to fill a seat that will be on the ballot AGAIN for the regular June primary and November general election. Incumbency is really powerful in San Francisco, and now Campos might get incumbency 8 years later because Chiu quit early.

Campos, a former member of the Board of Supervisors, is running against current Board member Matt Haney; early polling shows these two in the lead. This sucks because they are the two worst candidates. Campos is considered more liberal than Haney, but the progressive San Francisco Bay Guardian -- which hates Chiu -- refused to endorse Campos in 2014. Haney is a "progressive" NIMBY; he recently voted to delay approval of a 250-bed homeless shelter even though the second phrase of his campaign website says he supports "housing more homeless." When he was president of the school board in 2016 (something he doesn't even mention in his four-page election flier), Haney is the joker who first proposed renaming schools named after racists like George Washington. It's probably not great for him to be on this particular ballot (you'll read a lot more about the school board below) but all he has to do is finish second and he'll get a shot in April.

I am torn between Mahmood and Thea Selby. Read about Mahmood here. Though he worked in the Obama administration as a policy analyst, Mahmood has no experience running for office. Selby has been on the community college board since 2014, and to her credit it has improved from being the most-irresponsible government agency in SF during her tenure. I slightly prefer Mahmood's stands on issues including housing and a potential Green New Deal. Either is better than the other two.

UPDATE: The Chronicle endorsed Mahmood! I'm stunned and pleased. And also validated: I made my choices by reading their positions and watching a debate, but the Chronicle has the resources to interview the candidates and the expertise to parse all their past decisions. I hope this is the push Mahmood needs to make it to the runoff.

Assessor-Recorder: Whatever

Joaquín Torres was appointed to this job in February 2021 and is running unopposed for election to a full term. I have no idea if he's any good at the job, but it doesn't matter because he only needs one vote to win. Here's his website.

Now the main event:

San Francisco School Board Recall Election (Propositions A, B and C): Yes, Yes, Hell Yes! TOTAL RECALL!

Here is the TLDR version of this election endorsement:

Vote to recall all 3 of the San Francisco school board members on the ballot for these reasons:

* The school board that includes these three was more interested in renaming schools that had been named after racists like Abraham Lincoln and George Washington than in coming up with a school reopening plan.
* The board still has never come up with a plan for students to make up for all the lost learning
* The board has not paid any attention to its budget, building up a huge deficit. In December it was finally forced to approve an immediate $90 million in cuts in an attempt to avert a state takeover.

* The state might have to take over our schools! What more clear evidence could you ask for that this board is incompetent?

* These three were never the choice of a majority of the electorate in the first place.
* Alison Collins, after her racist tweets from 2016 were exposed, tried to take $87 million out of the school budget and put it in her own pocket.
* Collins' ally, board chairperson Gabriela Lopez, has led the board through its era of complete incompetence. She has shown us she cannot do the job
* Faauuga Moliga is not as bad as Collins or Lopez, but he hasn't shown that he's part of the solution. Removing him will give a more competent administrator a chance to do a better job.

xxxxxxxxx

Recall these three: Collins, Lopez and Moliga

I have a lot to say about this recall election, so if you lose interest just go back to the TLDR version. I want to look at how the board got this bad, and what might be done to get a more professional school board in the future.

I also want to wring my hands about recall elections in general. I don't think they're good for American democracy unless required by malfeasance or egregious incompetence. Generally I won't vote "Yes" on a recall even if I dislike the office holder. And whether the recall succeeds or not, these three seats are also up for election in November.

But this recall is very necessary, just to get Alison Collins out of a job that nearly every city political leader asked her to resign from two years ago because of her anti-Asian racism

Having already staked out a position that even Abraham Lincoln was not sufficiently anti-racist,
the school board had little choice but to strip Collins of her title as Vice President.

Collins turned around and filed a lawsuit for $87 million, attempting to redirect about 7 percent of the annual school budget into her own bank account. She failed, but undermined the schools anyway. Her lawsuit was ridiculous, but it cost the school district $110,000 to fight it.

Collins could file something like this again, at any time. She needs to go. A school board member who thinks it's OK to sue the school district for $87 million because her feelings were hurt cannot stay in a position where she has any influence on how money for schools is spent.

Collins is the headliner here, but there are many other reasons this recall is happening, and her lawsuit isn't the main one. I'm not going to touch on most of them; this official site for recall proponents does an excellent job, and I recommend that you read it. While you're there, check out the who's who of local politicians from both left and center (we have no right) who support this recall.

Instead, I want to talk about how these three people got elected to a job they have proven they are unqualified for.

The 2018 election had 19 candidates for 3 school board spots. Collins got the most votes of any candidate -- 15% of the votes cast. Lopez got 13.7% and Moliga got 13.2%. This meant relatively easy wins for them: the next closest candidate, Phil Kim, got 9.3%.

If those numbers were quadruple, I would have serious qualms about voting for this recall. But here's a statistical fun fact for you: at least 2/3 of people who voted in the 2018 school board election DID NOT CHOOSE ANY OF THESE THREE CANDIDATES.

In other words, they were not the choice of a majority of voters. Not even close. 817,920 votes were cast in the school board election. Between the three of them, they amassed 342,153 votes -- not even close to half, and many people voted for more than one of them for reasons I will explain below. They were chosen by a minority of voters: less than one in seven voters in the cases of Lopez and Moliga.

That's how democracy works in a crowded race. But my point is that there was no "will of the people" to install these three on the board. (I'm going to revisit the "will of the people" argument when District Attorney Chesa Boudin's recall election comes up later in 2022.)

So, how did they get elected?

Let's credit the three of them for good campaigning. Here's a nice story about how Lopez became the youngest elected official in San Francisco.

We wanted our own AOC; we love AOC in San Francisco. But AOC is uniquely brilliant, and unfortunately, the job of school board chairman for a huge, combative school district turned out to be too much for this 27-year-old schoolteacher, though you gotta admire her moxie.

Collins, an educator for 20 years, won in part because she had the support of the teachers' union. Moliga had widespread support from the city's liberal organizations. That's how you get above 10% of the vote when that's all that's necessary.

What did the media have to say about them? Glad you asked: that was a problem.

There are only two major publications in San Francisco that do detailed election endorsements, and one of them, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, went out of print several years ago and continues to exist online only for endorsements. We should be very grateful to SFBG editor Tim Redmond (who now runs the site 48 Hills) for this pro-bono work. I always appreciate that the Guardian interviews all the candidates and parses the issues. I find the Guardian's endorsements very helpful in making up my own mind.

However. The Guardian is very left-wing. In elections where the city is paying attention, the Guardian's "clean slate" endorsement is never enough to win. Former Mayor Willie Brown once said (I don't remember the exact quote), "In San Francisco, the left can muster 40% for every election. That's always enough to lose." Brown is right: though considered very left-wing for California, he was the centrist candidate in San Francisco, as was Gavin Newsom, as was Kamala Harris, as was London Breed. For citywide offices, the centrists almost always win. (Chesa Boudin is an important exception.)

But what about when the city is not paying attention? That's the problem with school-board races: only very involved people pay attention, which means a committed minority -- in this case as little as 10% of voters -- can win even if their views don't represent the city as a whole.

That's when we need the city's only remaining newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, to step up and give us guidance. The Chronicle has always been fairly pragmatic with its endorsements. It also has easily the most resources for this: it has an editorial board to interview the candidates and reporters to research them. For elections like the school board, where I know very little about the candidates, I like guidance from the Chronicle.

But the Chronicle doesn't provide much coverage of school board races, perhaps because it still sees its coverage area as regional and not local, and it doesn't want to parse the school board races in Napa and Livermore, etc. More irritating is that periodically it puts its endorsements behind its paywall. This makes no sense, because Chronicle endorsements are a public service -- the newspaper could make this community better by telling us how to vote in these obscure races.

The Chronicle's 2018 school-board endorsements are not behind a paywall, but they weren't easy to find on the site at the time either. And the endorsement editorial is only six paragraphs long, with only four paragraphs about the candidates. It's not a compelling argument, unfortunately, though personally I voted for the Chronicle's choices anyway. We wouldn't be having this recall if more people had done so; none of them won.

Chronicle people will tell you that the newspaper and the website SFGate are separate entities, though owned by the same company. Fine. Hearst Corporation, you have a civic responsibility to bring these two entities together when it comes to election endorsements, which could be posted on SFGate, but are not.

When the Chronicle hides its endorsements and short-plays them, that gives the Guardian, as well as special interest groups (which in San Francisco are usually very left-wing) much more power. I look at these winning candidates' vote totals -- 15%, 13.7% and 13.2% -- and see an election that a committed group of ideologues can win. And in fact, Collins, Lopez and Moliga all got the Guardian's endorsement.

This was the case in the past with the community college board; left-wing ideologues ran the community college district into the ground, blowing its budget and nearly losing its accreditation. That situation started to get better when the Chronicle started paying attention.

We need you, Chronicle! Please don't abandon covering local politics, and please stop minimizing the impact of your endorsements.

UPDATE: The Chronicle endorses this recall. (But I couldn't find this on the Chronicle website; I follow a Chronicle staffer who tweeted it.)

So Collins, Lopez and Moliga were basically elected by the far left, and they immediately went to work to please their small constituency, ordering a historic mural of George Washington destroyed in a decision that was overturned by a judge:

Then they went after Lowell High School, which has been the one gem of the San Francisco public school system: a merit-based school that allows the children of working-class families to have the same high-quality education that private schools offer. The board voted to basically destroy it by opening up admissions on a lottery basis. If you don't have the best students, you're not going to have the best school. Their theory is that it's unfair that some kids get a better education than others, so everyone should have the same subpar education. You can't call it socialist thinking because even the Soviet Union found ways to get its brighter students into technical programs. It's more akin to sibling jealousy: if I can't have something nice, you can't have it either.

The Lowell issue was the one that sparked parents to begin gathering signature for a recall. I agree with the parents on this, but I wouldn't vote to recall the board members based on Lowell alone. The board members can argue that they represented the wishes of the people who voted for them (though that brings me back to pointing out that at least 2/3 of people who voted in the election did not choose any of them.)

If anyone is reading this looking for anything that might reflect national politics, first of all, it's schools not reopening during the pandemic, but hopefully by November that won't be an issue anymore. Otherwise, it's Lowell. I've been thinking about this a lot in the wake of the Democratic Party's hand-wringing over losing the Virginia governor's election. That election turned on education issues, but exit polls showed that despite GOP posturing, fear of Critical Race Theory didn't move as many voters as expected.

That would be the case here. If San Francisco had a referendum on teaching Critical Race Theory to kindergartners, it would pass by a large majority; we're not afraid of it. But take away a merit-based admissions policy and voters revolt. Keep that in mind, national Democrats.

The school renaming issue was the final straw for many voters; it was what induced me to sign the petition. During the pandemic, the board spent many hours discussing renaming 44 schools instead of coming up with a plan for reopening the schools. That's a clear sign that the current school board doesn't care about education; only about left-wing politics. And even after they spent a year on the project, the board couldn't get its facts straight! They put Paul Revere on the wrong side of the Revolutionary War, and blamed Abraham Lincoln for allowing 38 Santee Sioux to be hanged when in fact he pardoned and thus saved 262 Santee Sioux in the incident. (Not to mention that when regarding Lincoln's legacy, is this the only incident that matters?)

How can you tell people how to teach history when you can't understand it yourself?

I plan to vote against all of the current school board members when they come up for re-election, with the exception of Kevine Boggess, who voted against the school renaming.

But let's get back to the recall. Because of her lawsuit, Collins has to go, as soon as possible; she's a danger to the school system. Lopez has been president of the board during this period of incompetence. She is in over her head. Perhaps the board would have been better served by making someone else president, but they chose Lopez and she has failed at the job.

How badly? The school board spent an entire year not addressing its budget deficit; instead, the board assigned the deputy superintendent who oversees the budgeting process to the school renaming project. By the time the board realized it needed to make cuts, the cuts had to be more sudden and extreme than they might have been if Lopez had put the item on the agenda earlier. Teachers protested outside the board meeting against the budget cuts; it makes me wonder how many of them intentionally chose candidates who would ignore fiscal issues (this happened with the community college board). Lopez voted against the cuts, saying she was "cornered into accepting a proposal." You were in charge! You should have done something earlier!

Public school enrollment is down 4.7% since fall 2020, and private school enrollment is up 1.1%. Some parents have left the city, and unfortunately more parents have decided they must pay for education because the public schools couldn't put together a plan to open for so long, and still don't have a plan to make up for missed education. That's a failure.

I will also vote to recall Moliga, but the argument against him is the weakest. The only knock against Moliga is that he hasn't been part of the solution.

But I will vote against him because this is a rare chance to get three pragmatists on the board at once. Mayor London Breed, a centrist, will appoint replacements for whichever candidates are recalled. It is so hard, for structural reasons, for a pragmatist to get elected for this school board; look at the failure of all of the Chronicle's endorsees in 2018. The most influential media for school board races -- the Guardian -- endorses ideologues. If 48 Hills supplants the Guardian (please don't give up, Tim, we need you for the ballot questions), it will be the same.

As long as a candidate can win a board seat with just 13% of the vote, this board will be owned by the city's activist progressives. Our schools will have great equity initiatives, but not much focus on education.

If Mayor Breed nominates three replacements, they can run in the November election as incumbents, and maybe that will give them the edge to stay on the board. They would be in the minority, but it would be amazing to have, on an ideological board, a pragmatic faction. So, sorry Moliga, but if we recall you, we can do better.

And if we recall all three, maybe we will bring some seriousness to a board that has been very silly.

Also, a reminder: if you don't like the current school board, it was assembly candidate Matt Haney (see above) who started them down this path, a fact he would rather not have mentioned.

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

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Update: Sonoma County spokesperson confirms that San Francisco Chronicle wine competition appears to be in violation of health order

The San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, ongoing in Cloverdale in northern Sonoma County, is indeed in violation of Sonoma County's health order this week banning large gatherings.

But nothing is going to happen about it unless a Sonoma County resident complains. And even then ... nothing is going to happen.

This is an update of my blog post yesterday. Sonoma County Communications Manager Paul Gullixson finally called me Thursday afternoon. To say that Gullixson immediately confirmed that the competition, run by Winejudging.com, is breaking the law would be an overstatement. Gullixson said several times, "We don't know the specifics of how this is being held." He only knew what I told him and read him out loud from Winejudging.com's website.

But Gullixson did know the details of the health order, which he stated to me several times. The key is this:

"Large gatherings, as defined below, are prohibited.  To the extent a large gathering has been planned to occur during the period of this Order, it shall be postponed or canceled."

Gullixson said that neither Winejudging nor the Chronicle (which is just a naming sponsor) contacted the county about an exemption. 

"They have not reached out to us in an attempt to see if they need an accommodation or guidance, or how to hold this," Gullixson said. "It sounds like it would fall under special events, which would be like weddings. Then it would be (limited to) no more than 50 people." 

Gullixson said he wasn't sure if the competition would try to claim the exemption for restaurants, but if it is an event and not a restaurant, then there is no exemption.

I read a long section of Winejudging's statement to Gullixson: "This endeavor is a structured and highly controlled private assessment of agricultural products. The public is not allowed at the facility (i.e; not a restaurant) and the judges, staff and volunteers, are held to strict COVID mitigation protocols including symptom checks upon arrival before entering the building, temperature checks, the use of PPE, and frequent hand sanitizing."

But Gullixson said the order is about the number of attendees, not mitigation protocols. There is no mention on the WineJudging site of the number of people at the event, but as I reported yesterday, there are photos of 51 judges, and wine competitions have more volunteers than judges, often two or three times more. 51 judges PLUS 51 times X volunteers > 50.

"If they did move this outside or put it in a canopy, that would be a different situation," Gullixson said.

The judges and volunteers at the event shouldn't worry because at this point, there's not enough time for the county to act.

"We do have an ordinance in this case. The health order calls for the potential for penalties," Gullixson said. "Our compliance team would investigate. We would ask them to address whatever non-compliance is occurring. If there's repeated non-compliance, there would be a fine invoked. We are not eager to go out and police this at every occasion. That is not what we want to do. We have responded on a complaint basis."

Gullixson said he's happy that most Sonoma County residents and businesses have complied with previous health orders.

"Most often when there is a violation of a health order, when we have visited the venue and addressed it with the owner, in most cases they have adjusted to fall in line with the health order and that has been the end of it," he said.

Friday Jan. 14 is the scheduled end of the competition, so whether or not it's a superspreader event, the issue ends then.

A number of people have asked why I'm covering this. Good question! In fact, I should be writing a feature story -- nice people making nice wine -- that is due early next week that I will get paid for. Blogging is pro bono work and it's taking me away from my real job.

Here's why I'm doing it. 1. I know it's happening. 2. I know it's wrong. 3. Nobody else is covering it.

One of the reasons I got into journalism was to speak truth to power. It bothers me to see organizations break the law with impunity. I think the role of the media is to say something about it.

I have prodded the San Francisco Chronicle a number of times over the last day to ask why they aren't covering their sponsored event flouting a law. Believe me, I'd rather read about it in The Chronicle than have to write it up myself. They would do a better job!

I don't understand why The Chronicle runs stories like this about health order violations, but not about this one. A health-order violation helped lead to a gubernatorial recall election. Our priorities must be different: I'm not bothered by individuals, even politicians, going maskless at a private party; the potential for spreading Covid-19 is limited to the attendees, and the number at Newsom's party was small. If you want to risk getting Covid-19 at a small gathering, that's your choice.

But a large organization -- one sponsored by The Chronicle itself! -- openly flouting the law with a large event during a Covid-19 surge that led to a specific health order gets my journalistic-responsibility sense tingling.

As I mentioned in yesterday's blog post, wine competitions are less safe than other large gatherings. People don't wear masks and they spit all day. It's a recipe for a superspreader event.

Yet I can raise no objection to the competition happening Monday and Tuesday, before the health order was in place. I wouldn't want to be there myself while the pandemic is ongoing, but my objection is not that the competition is happening.

My objection is that it is openly breaking the law.

That's what reporters are supposed to report on. Where are you, San Francisco Chronicle?


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

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Chronicle Wine Competition continues in apparent defiance of Sonoma County health order

The Chronicle Wine Competition posted these photos on Jan. 12

On Monday, Jan. 10, Sonoma County issued a health order prohibiting gatherings of more than 50 people indoors, effective Wednesday, Jan. 12 at 12:01 a.m.

The San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition began Monday Jan. 10 in Cloverdale in northern Sonoma County, and as of Jan. 12 in the afternoon, it is still going on, despite apparently being in violation of the order.

In fact, on Wednesday the competition website was updated to announce "Wine Judging is Underway!" Clicking on the link took readers to another page, "Photos of the SFCWC Wine Judging," that shows judges in white coats sniffing at wine glasses. (I saved a PDF of this in case the competition directors read this post and take the photos down.)

Were there more than 50 people at the competition, including judges and volunteers? The photo page shows 51 judges, so, yes. 

For people who have not been to a wine competition, the judges are just the tip of the iceberg. You need volunteers to open the bottles, pour wines into glasses, bring the glasses to the judges, and collect and dump spit buckets. Glasses must be washed. You also need people to keep track of which wines won which medals. There is usually a very large ratio of volunteers to judges.

Something else about wine competitions: they involve people without masks, spitting constantly, hundreds of times in a day.

I don't know how many volunteers and judges the Chronicle Wine Competition had working indoors together this week. Winejudging.com, which runs the competition, did not respond to my email query.

In fact, nobody wants to talk about this. I know several judges at the competition, but none would speak on the record (though I could confirm that the competition is ongoing and more than 50 people are there.)

Sonoma County's health officer wouldn't return my calls; I don't see an exception for wine competitions in the order, though. The competition is only scheduled to run through Friday, Jan. 14. Ignore it for two more days and the problem goes away. I doubt that the sheriff is going to show up on Friday morning.

The San Francisco Chronicle doesn't run the competition; it is only the naming sponsor. Nonetheless, I emailed Chronicle publisher Bill Nagel; he hasn't responded (yet) either.

You might wonder why I'm breaking this story and The San Francisco Chronicle is not. Well, I wonder that too.

I also wonder how a building full of journalists, wine educators, sommeliers, wine buyers, and local volunteers can all hold the mutual belief that the law does not apply to wine competitions. Maybe gold medals make everything legal?

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

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Cannabis industry update from the Cannabis Business Summit

Cannabis is already a huge business -- $23.6 billion in sales in the US in 2021. And there's room to grow fast because the industry is still not reaching as many female consumers.

This was one of the findings presented at the Cannabis Business Summit in San Francisco last week by Cy Scott, co-founder of Headset. Headset works a bit like Nielsen; it takes data from receipts from cannabis stores in the US and Canada.

Legal cannabis sales grew 28% in the US from 2020 to 2021, and 54% in Canada (to $4 billion). In Canada, the growth was largely in Ontario, because that province began opening additional stores in an attempt to tempt consumers away from the illicit market. In the US, growth continues to come from new states opening up.

Arizona legalized cannabis in 2020 and sales are rising rapidly. Sales are also way up in California, Illinois, Massachusetts and Michigan. But sales are nearly flat in Colorado, Oregon and Washington, possibly showing that the markets there have reached saturation.

Millennials are by far the biggest consumers of cannabis, making up nearly 50% of customers. Gen Z has just passed baby boomers, and more Gen Z people are reaching legal consumption age every day.

In the US, only about 33% of sales are to female consumers. Females are much more likely to buy topicals and tinctures than male consumers. The major edible brands appeal to both genders, but females buy about 43%; the over-indexing shows that they are more interested in edibles than males.

Here is something similar between the US alcohol market and the US cannabis market: distributors and high-end business types act bored with the main product, and can't wait for you to move on to some heavily adulterated intoxicant delivery system.


In cannabis this means the suits want to move people away from flower -- the basic form of cannabis, and the most popular form in every market. There's more profit to be made selling extracted chemicals than naturally grown plants. But it turns out that customers may be smarter than this. Newer markets sell more vape pens, but mature US markets sell more flower, Scott said.

Flower is about 45% of the US market overall. Vape pens make up about 20% of the US market, with pre-rolls, edibles and concentrates responsible for about 10% each. (For my wine industry readers, cannabis beverages are still a blip.)

Canadians are trying out alternatives lately: 80% of the market was flower in March 2019, and now it's about 45%.

Scott said that flower skews to an older, male clientele, but the differences aren't that great: 52% of male baby boomers prefer flower, the highest of any US demographic group, but the lowest is female Gen-Z at 39%. Give them time, they'll learn!


Here's a classic example of generational marketing. There's a "chef-based" edibles brand called Mindy's that makes items like "glazed clementine orange" cannabis-infused gummies. And there's a brand called Stiizy that makes edibles in flavors including "sour apple, Caribbean breeze, blue raspberry blast and sour strawberry." If you think Mindy's sounds good, you're probably using reading glasses: it skews to baby boomers. If you think Stiizy sounds good, you're not reading this because it's in text and not video; it skews to Gen Z.

Here's the evidence that cannabis consumers are not (yet) brand loyal: In California, 32.3% of products account for 80% of sales.

"What this tells me is the winners haven't been selected yet," Scott said.

Compare that to the wine industry. Gallo alone makes about 30% of all US wines, and just 7 companies make about 77% of all US wines.

All of that I gleaned from just one seminar! Here are some odds and ends from other seminars I attended:

* One of the cannabis industry's main Washington lobbyists expressed a lot of frustration with the dysfunctional Democrats. Consider this: a majority of Democrats in Congress support full legalization and they are joined by a surprising number of Republicans. And there are huge majorities for lesser steps, especially allowing safe banking and removing cannabis from Schedule 1, which specifically states that there is no currently accepted medical use. Obviously that's wrong.

Yet nothing has been done. The reason will remind you of the endless Democrat internal fighting over other bills this year: the perfect has been the enemy of the good. If the Democrats would just put forward a simple bill removing cannabis from Schedule 1 and allowing cannabis businesses full access to banking services for safety, it would pass easily. They have had all year; the legislation would be popular. But they haven't done it and aren't making it a priority. And in fact, a cannabis banking provision was pulled from a different bill because it wasn't "perfect."

Meanwhile, big tobacco and alcohol companies are angling through their lobbyists to write cannabis rules to benefit big businesses. I wouldn't bet against them.

* California is hoping to dominate cannabis production as it does wine. Nicole Elliott, director of the California Department of Cannabis Control, said a main goal in federal regulation is to allow interstate commerce "because of our production capacity."

* Social equity is a much, much bigger deal in the fledgling cannabis industry than in older industries, and this makes sense because the war on drugs was largely conducted in minority communities. Social equity will be a major part of many regulations going forward.

* The federal legalization of hemp has led to a weird situation where companies are taking extracts from hemp and manipulating them in laboratories to come up with the psychoactive components found naturally in regular cannabis.

Oregon's head of cannabis regulation said southern Oregon is suddenly awash in hemp growhouses that popped up overnight, driven by the demand for CBD and other derivatives, and that some of them have been caught growing regular cannabis alongside the hemp. But there is little incentive, either federal or local, to crack down on illegal grow operations with cannabis in so many legal gray areas.

* A panel of athletes revealed that they like to smoke a joint after a game to wind down, when they're full of adrenaline, and also for pain relief. The NFL is the one major US sports league that still punishes players for using cannabis -- and it's the one league where practically all of the players are in pain every single day.

* A tour of the booths offering stuff for sale to other cannabis businesses showed that powdery mildew, a wine industry scourge, is also a huge problem in the cannabis industry, with several companies offering solutions.

* However, I did not see one business offering odor control for cannabis growers. It has been an issue in some locales but there doesn't seem to be any technology to address it (market opening?)

* One PR company promised "#1 SEO placement in your local market." Seriously? If you buy that, ask for a money-back guarantee.

* Cannabis products on offer to the public are changing fast, not surprising for a young industry. I saw several objects I didn't recognize that turned out to be new models for vape pens. I also learned that I had no idea what a "diamond-infused preroll" is. The woman marketing them looked at me like I had been under a rock for two years. Which I guess is true.

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

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Haiku tasting notes for autumn 2021

Shorter than twitter
haiku tasting notes capture
the feeling of wine

I have been keeping haiku tasting notes for a few months since claiming I could do it. In most cases I took traditional tasting notes and then wrote the haiku. Some of these wines and sakes I have written about elsewhere; for others this will be my only memory, save the ephemeral grace of drinking and enjoying them.

These are all unedited, which any critic will tell you is rare for tasting notes. But a haiku is supposed to capture a moment in time, so it feels wrong to come in months later and change a word.

I used the classic haiku definition of 5-7-5 syllables. It is with deep regret that I did not always include a seasonal reference as all good haiku should. Please accept my contrition.

The links lead to places you can purchase the wines and sakes.

I also gave scores
But will keep those to myself
Haiku must suffice


Accendo Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 14.8% alcohol

Graceful blackberries
Delightful seamless texture
not overstated

Accendo Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 14.8%

Intense berry fruit
smooth tannins but abrupt finish
Not ready open

Ameal Vinho Verde Loureiro 2020 11.5%

Fresh and floral
Better with food than solo
Great typicity

Ca' Lojera "Riserva del Lupo" Lugana 2017 14%

Lemon with sea air
Crisp, salty and refreshing
I want some fried smelt

Cameron Hughes Lot 35 Yountville Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 13.8%

Mature aroma
Fresh and dried black and purple
assertive then grace

Capezzana "Trefiano" Carmignano Riserva 2015 14.5%

Smells like Cabernet
Fortunately it tastes like
ripe Sangiovese

 Capezzana Villa di Capezzanaarmignano 2016 14.5%

Smoked red plums and ham
Fresh on you right away then
spreads medium body

Carlo Zenegaglia "Montefluno" Lugana 2020 13%

Fresh spring citrus breeze
Awake lingering sandy
we had with wrapped fish

Caruso & Minini Sicilia Catarratto 2020 13%

Wanted dinner white
It did that job perfectly
And it's so much more

Caruso & Minini Terre Siciliane IGP Frappato Nerello Mascalese 2020 13.5%

Spiced berry bouquet
Tastes forest, wild, great texture
big cat leans on you

Casa da Tapada "Superior" Vinho Verde Alvarinho & Loureiro 2018 13%

Citrus up front
your lips smack, then smooth finish
Simple great with food

Château de la Crée "La Confrérie" Santenay 2018 13.5%

Smoked cherry open
Good freshness; cedar finish
It's agreeable

Donnafugata "Sul Vulcano" Etna Rosso 2017 14%

Nicely balanced wine
red plums are good but I want
More mineral notes

Esporão Bico Amarelo Vinho Verde 2020 11.5%

Lemon pith sea air
cream aroma opens quite fresh
taut lemon hint bloom

Faust "The Pact" Coombsville Cabernet Sauvignon 2019

Herbs and dusty slate
Just ripe purples nice texture
lush yet not too rich

Fleur de Mer Côtes de Provence Rosé 2019 13%

Elegant simple
pale orange color fruit driven
Intense cantaloupe

Gillmore Mariposa Maule Valley País 2019 13%

Hibiscus berry
Light red hue of Christmas ball
Light but not lightweight

Grace Family Vineyard "Grace Family Blend" St. Helena Cabernet Sauvignon 2019

Grace, the vineyard name
is descriptive too. Balanced
complex, elegant

Granbazàn "Etiqueta Verde" Rias Baixas Albariño 2020 13%

Lemon growing stone
Fresh light citrus, some structure
Terrific fish wine

Harbor Winery Amador County Mission del Sol 1984

Great use historic
variety it's tawny
fresh caramelized

Heiwa Shuzou "Kid" Junmai Ginjo Haru no Kinpu Nama

(I wrote this one in Japanese)

春ののように見る
飲む 生きる

(It's not great Japanese but it does have a seasonal reference. Here is the translation)

Spring nama sake
gentle sunset fog I see
Drinking it's alive

Hudson Ranch "Trillium" Los Carneros Chardonnay 2019

Toasted coconut
lemon pith and salt water
Serious party

J. Bucher Bucher Vineyard Russian River Valley Rosé of Pinot Noir 2019 13.5%

Pretty pink light red
Fruity cherry, light citrus
Close to red border

Kosta Browne "Bootlegger's Hill" Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2017 13.5%

Sloppy drunken kiss
Lemon curd on fresh baked bread
Luscious and not shy

Kosta Browne Cerise Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2017 13.4%

Cerise describes the
Potent cherry aroma
Fresh and assertive

Kosta Browne Giusti Ranch Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2018 14.2%

In the past this brand
was enormous but now this wine
it is delicate

Kuro Kabuto Junmai Daiginjo (black koji) 720 ml

Peachy and milky
Exuberant at first Hey!
Withdraws, dries up. Yep.

Kutch Signal Ridge Vineyard Mendocino Ridge Pinot Noir 2016 12%

Deep forest berries
Fresh, buoyant, bit muscular
Nice low alcohol

Le Morette Lugana Riserva 2017 13.5%

Taut, fresh, citrusy
Hints of chalk and white flowers
Cries out for shellfish

Louis Roederer Collection 242 Champagne 12%

Chalk toast citrus nose
Opens fresh then broadens toast
Expansive finish

Marchesi di Gresy Barbera d'Asti 2018 14%

Juicy red plum
Fresh open then adds some weight
Nice tangy food wine

Montonale "Montunal" Lugana 2019 13.5%

Familiar flavors
citrus and sea salt take me
to lakeside seafood

Nicolas Jay "L'Ensemble" Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2018 13.5%

Assemblage in blue
Made for texture and balance
Non-complex blue fruit

Sangiro Pieknierskloof Pinotage 2017 13%

Abandoned vineyard
Nursed back to life reveals spring
with vibrant flavors

Tasca d'Almerita Tenuta Regaleali "Lamùri" Sicilia Nero d'Avola 2016 13.5%

Straightforward and fresh
Red berry fruit, not complex
Very drinkable

Tenuta Capofaro "Didyme" Salina IGT Malvasia 2019 13%

Perfumey lemon
with a hint of pungency
Fresh with nice saline

The Vice "Brooklynites" Napa Valley Orange of Semillon 2020 13.7%

Distant sunrise hue
grips your tongue like a light red
Fruit like a ripe white

The Vice Sauvignon Blanc Rosé 2019 12.8%

Pale yellow hint pink
citrus aroma feral
rude, vegetal white

Tierra Roja Vineyards "Years for Peace" Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 ($283)

Freshly picked black fruit
smooth, rich, lush with good balance
Classic style Oakville

Trump Reserve Monticello Brut 2014 12.5%

Expect competence
This winemaker delivers
The owner did not

Tsukasabotan "Senchu Hassaku Reika Nama" Junmai Nama sake 720 ml

Alive in your face
Intense fruity nectarine
then cereal beer

Ventisquero "Enclave" Pirque Maipo Andes Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 14%


syrupy open
dark fruit rich finishes fresh
Integrates slowly

Ventisquero "Grey" Single Block Las Terrazas Vineyard Valle de Leyda Pinot Noir 2017 12.5%

Light bodied red brown
Dried cherries cedar leather
Elegant texture

Zulal Vayots Dzor (Armenia) Areni 2018 13%

Spicy, peppery
Aromatic and its taste
Promises delivered

Zulal Vayots Dzor (Armenia) Voskehat 2019 13.5%

Jaunty fruity nose
Weighty dried stonefruit springs warm
Nice bitter finish

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

Monday, August 16, 2021

Election endorsement: Should we recall California governor Gavin Newsom?

Photo courtesy Michael S. Williamson, Washington Post
Election endorsements are a tradition at The Gray Report, because I think we yell too much about national politics but don't discuss our local choices enough.

This could be the easiest election endorsement ever. Unlike a regular ballot with school board candidates I've never heard of and complex ballot propositions, there are only two questions on the ballot that all Californians received by mail, and the first is the key: should we recall Governor Gavin Newsom? And the answer to that question is the easiest ever.

Just because it's easy doesn't mean it's without consequence. We are in the middle of a pandemic, and we might suddenly hand the governor's job -- and power -- to a radio talk show host, a YouTube commentator, or a businessman with a pet bear. That might sound like a joke but those are the three leading candidates.

I am furious at the California Democratic Party for allowing this to happen. Not for the first time. There are many echoes in this recall election of 2003, when Gray Davis was recalled and voters installed Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor. Unfortunately there is no one anywhere near as good as Schwarzenegger waiting to take over this time. That is the California Democratic Party's (CDP) fault.

In 2002, Davis was extremely unpopular but the CDP discouraged any primary competition. Voters didn't want Davis but the CDP tried to avoid giving us a choice. The very next year there was a recall, and the CDP tried to keep every viable Democratic candidate from entering. Cruz Bustamante, the lieutenant governor, threw his hat in the ring despite being warned that he would be ostracized by the CDP. The CDP didn't put any effort into Bustamante's candidacy. Davis was recalled, Schwarzenegger became governor, and as threatened Bustamante's political career was over. Thanks to the CDP cramming Gray Davis down our throats and not supporting an alternative, we got 7 years of a GOP governor in a Democratic state.

That is looking increasingly likely to happen again. If only we had a Cruz Bustamante on this ballot. San Francisco mayor London Breed or Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti would look good on this ballot. Former LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, California House speaker Anthony Rendon and California Senate majority leader Robert Hertzberg also. Anybody in Newsom's cabinet would look good on this ballot, and for most it would be their only real chance to be governor. But the party managed to keep them from running.


The strategy is to coerce voters into voting NO on the recall because, the CDP calculates, we should rightfully be terrified by the sideshow clowns who will get the job if the recall succeeds. But polls are showing how risky that strategy is, as Newsom barely leads at this time.

It's not just a Republican-led recall: it's a Proud Boys, anti-vax, anti-masker, seditionist-led recall. The same people who cheered on Jan. 6 are the ones most excited about this recall. They are going to vote. They might have enough numbers to get it done if sensible members of the electorate don't vote. Think about the face of those Jan. 6 terrorists in the Capitol: that is the enthusiasm they are bringing to this recall.

Of course you should vote NO.

I'm not going to defend Newsom at length. If you hate Newsom, he's up for re-election in 2022 and if the CDP doesn't block other candidates from the primary like in 2002, we can vote him out then. The 2022 primary is less than a year away! Wait for it!

That said, the state has a budget surplus under Newsom. Under his pandemic leadership we went from having one of the worst outbreaks in the entire world in Los Angeles in mid-2020 to having one of the lowest rates of infection in the country today. I don't like wearing a mask again either, but do you want to live in Florida right now? I like Florida, I lived there for a decade, but no thank you during the Delta variant surge. Newsom has gotten a number of things wrong, but he has gotten the two biggest things right.

But honestly, that's not the reason to vote NO. The reason is that like every election, if you choose not to decide you still have made a choice. Somebody is going to be Governor of California in October. Ignoring this recall doesn't mean it won't happen; instead it makes it more likely.

I'm going to vote NO. Obviously. And I am ABSOLUTELY NOT going to leave the second question blank. I am NOT going to let Proud Boys and anti-vaxxers decide the next governor of California without doing a thing to stop it.

I have to hold my nose and vote for someone in case Newsom falls. There are 46 candidates on the ballot and one of them will be governor.

Survey USA recently released a poll showing the top three candidates as Kevin Paffrath (27%), a YouTube talking head who has the huge advantage of being one of only nine Democrats; Larry Elder (23%), a conservative talk show host; and John Cox (10%), a businessman who brought a bear on a chain to his campaign speeches for some reason, perhaps going for the underserved carnival demographic.

All of them suck; I mean, really, really suck. Including the "Democrat." I always complain about having to choose lousy school board candidates, but these are even worse choices, and the job is so much more important.

Here's a quick summary. The link on each of their names goes to their Wikipedia pages, which I encourage you to read:

Kevin Paffrath: He buys and sells homes but makes his money from selling advertising on his YouTube channel. He advocates for landlords to mislead tenants. He's 29 years old and popular with younger voters, largely because he's not a professional politician. His positions on his website are interesting, but they're not well thought out (he thinks he can reduce gas prices by raising the tax on gas) and more importantly they're not things he can accomplish without the legislature; an experienced politician would understand that. And if the CDP wouldn't support any of its members to run, don't expect the Democrats in the legislature to support Paffrath if he wins.

Everybody hates politicians. Do you remember the last non-politician we elected President? If you think Donald Trump was good at the job ... It took Schwarzenegger two years to figure out how to work in government, and there are less than two years left in the current governor's term. Jesse Ventura was a non-politician governor in Minnesota; the state went from a budget surplus to a deficit in his one term. Both Schwarzenegger and Ventura were a lot smarter, more experienced, and better prepared than Paffrath and you can't call either one a success. We're in a crisis; we don't need a leader who needs to have the limits of his power explained every day.

Larry Elder: Please. Elder is 69 and he's a lawyer, which will help him understand that he can't just violate the law. But he has been a conservative talk-show host for 33 years. He hasn't run anything. He doesn't manage people. Governor is a management job as much as it is a political job, and he has zero experience. He is not qualified to be a big-city mayor, much less a governor. (Obviously, neither is Paffrath.)

John Cox: I don't love saying this, but Cox is easily the most qualified of the three leading candidates. He was the Republican candidate for governor in 2018; he has run for office several times before, so at least he should know the rules. I don't like his political positions, but he's less extreme than Elder and more sensible than Paffrath.

Now there is a quandary: should I (and you) vote for Cox, the least bad of the top three candidates, or fish around among the other 43 for somebody better?

Kevin Faulconer, former mayor of San Diego, has gotten as much media attention during the recall as anyone other than Caitlyn Jenner. Faulconer is the kind of Republican who would not be a bad governor for this Democratic-majority state: he has generally fiscally conservative but socially liberal views. I am sick of seeing him on my local TV news for the last year talking up the recall; he looks like the opportunist that all these guys are. But he is easily the most qualified candidate among the 46.

Joel Ventresca: If you want to pick somebody because he's a Democrat, it should probably be this guy. He was an administrator at San Francisco airport for 34 years so he understands government and management, and his positions are reliably liberal.

Doug Ose: He spent three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives as a conservative anti-tax politician. While in Congress he tried to pass a bill outlawing the broadcasting of George Carlin's "7  Words You Can Never Say on Television;" inexplicably he replaced "tits" with "asshole." But on this ballot he's the second-most-qualified person. Ugh! (UPDATE: He had a heart attack and has ended his campaign, but he's still on the ballot.)

Dan Kapelovitz: A criminal defense attorney running on the Green Party ticket, his positions will be attractive to liberals. He doesn't have government experience but take a look at his platform; liberal but (unlike Paffrath and many others in this race) also practical about what he could actually accomplish as governor.

Jeff Hewitt: A member of the Riverside County board of supervisors, and it seems like he has been good at it. He's one of the few members of the Libertarian Party to win an election anywhere in the US. We could do a lot worse, but I don't see how he'll get enough support to win statewide.

Caitlyn Jenner: Come on, it's not gonna happen. She has zero experience at running anything, and she's a conservative Republican who conservative Republicans will not support. If they want a conservative media talking head with no other credentials they have Elder.

Denver Stoner: He's a deputy sheriff in rural Alpine County (population 1,129.) The county is actually Democratic but he's a Republican, and if he has political views he hasn't widely shared them. Love the name though, and I worry that some people will check that box thinking he's a Stoner. Busted!

I am a Democrat of the fiscally liberal variety (Sanders/Warren). But more than that or any specific position, I am a pragmatist. I want the person who will do the best job, (usually) regardless of party. I might vote for a Democrat I don't like for national office (cough cough Feinstein) to keep Mitch McConnell or Kevin McCarthy from being majority leader, but I won't do that for state office. Don't be lulled by the hot-vax summer; California faces a continuing crisis, and we need the best leader we can have.


It's not Paffrath. I won't vote for him, even in a calculating leading-Democrat way. If I had to pick one of the three poll leaders, it would be (gulp) Cox the bear-baiter.

I am torn between Faulconer, who I think would be good at the job, and Kapelovitz, who could pull off a late upset if Paffrath's young supporters start paying attention. I like Hewitt well enough but I don't see how he could summon the support to win. Ventresca would be my Democratic candidate of choice but he has no traction in the race.

What I am personally going to do today is this: I'm going to hang onto my ballot for a while to see if anyone emerges from the scrum. I am probably going to vote for either Faulconer or Kapelovitz and I'll wait to see if either gathers any support in the polls.

UPDATE: A new SF Chronicle poll showed that Elder has the most support -- yikes -- and there's no close second, but Faulconer has as much support as any non-Elder candidate so that's who I'm going with. After voting NO of course.

But I'm not going to wait too long. The election is Sept. 14. Ballots must be postmarked by then. So you also can wait but do NOT forget.

To be extremely clear: Vote NO. NO!!!! HELL NO we don't want a talk-show host as governor during a pandemic.

After that, you have to make a choice. UPDATE: I went with Faulconer. Sigh. Seriously, I've been pissed off at this guy for the last year for his opportunism, and yet I'm going to reward him for it. This really is worse than a school-board election.

But that doesn't matter: if you don't want a talk-show host as governor, YOU HAVE TO VOTE!!!