Monday, January 20, 2020

Intimidation and shame are holding wine back

Helen Rosner, food correspondent for the New Yorker, stirred up the wine Twitterverse last week by complaining about a page on a wine list.

Her actual complaint, which wasn't clear from her first tweet, wasn't that she couldn't understand the list. Instead, she is irritated when she calls a wine something (i.e., "the Benoît Ente") and the server responds by calling it something else ("Oh, you mean the Aligoté.")



Let's put the reach of this tweet, and all wine Twitter, in perspective. This was, for wine Twitter, an enormous tweet. She got 2900 likes (as of Saturday). Also in my Twitter feed as I write this, Congressman Ted Lieu got 191,000 likes for telling Devin Nunes to shove it. (Not enough likes.) The Hill got 7,100 likes for announcing that Donald Trump was repealing Michelle Obama's school lunch rules on her birthday. (People like that?) And Professor Snape (@_Snape_) got 2600 likes for posting, "Recent studies show I hate everything." Wine Twitter is still a fishbowl.

That said, Rosner took a blender to the fishbowl with her tweet, and her subsequent aggressive stance in arguing about it. It is the latter that strikes me.

Rosner is no shrinking violet. She's fully capable of having a conversation with a sommelier, obviously, because she's willing to argue with dozens of people simultaneously. What bothers her is that she doesn't want to experience in person, however briefly, the feeling of a server correcting her.


Monday, January 6, 2020

Result of a 10-year experiment: does filtering out brett work?

This blog post has been 10 years in the making.

A decade ago, I interviewed Cameron Hughes. He's a San Francisco-based wine negociant and I've interviewed him a bunch of times, but on that occasion, he said something -- and gave me a bottle -- that I wanted to test.

Hughes had bought a batch of 2008 Napa Cabernet that he said was full of brett, so much that the producer couldn't risk releasing it under its own name. He boasted that he sterile-filtered out all the brett and now he had a prestigious wine to sell.

What if you didn't get it all, I asked. Even a little brett in the bottle could increase over time.

Hughes told me if I checked the bottle in 10 years, I would find no brett. And he gave me a bottle.

Which I put away for a decade.

Last week I got it out of my cellar. And on Saturday night I opened it. What would I find?

***************

This is the part where I talk about how the world was different in 2010, when I put this bottle away.

The first iPad was sold in 2010. A DVD-by-mail company named Netflix introduced streaming video.


Friday, November 22, 2019

Healthier, lab-tested, lower in alcohol: the appeal of Dry Farm Wines

You will know immediately if you are the kind of person who would like Dry Farm Wines.

The wine club, founded by a real estate investor who lives in the heart of Napa Valley, is the largest buyer of natural wines in the world. It's ironic because these wines are the antithesis of everything Napa Valley stands for. They're recommended on the website by a who's-who list of biohackers and people who espouse keto and paleo type diets, because they're healthier than most commercial wine. It hasn't made Dry Farm Wines founder Todd White popular with his neighbors in Yountville.

"In 2009 I founded a street festival in St. Helena that became the largest gathering in Napa Valley," Todd White told me. "In 2009 I was named citizen of the year in St. Helena. Today I barely get my calls returned by anybody. My social calendar in the Napa Valley has run dry. It's OK, it's a price I'm willing to pay for helping people live a healthier life."

These are not just natural wines. The company has a very specific aesthetic: low alcohol (12.5% or less), clean wines (despite minimal sulfur) and no residual sugar.

The special feature is that it lab tests all of its wines, so they are what they claim to be. I'm a rather well-known skeptic, but I believe in Dry Farm Wines.

I have no desire to argue about this story with people who like high-alcohol wines. These wines are not for you; you don't have to drink them. I also know the term "natural wine" puts some people into a frenzy. But I tasted nine of these wines and all were fine: the lab-testing program seems to assure it. They are similar to each other, especially the reds: they are lean, fresh and juicy, without oak flavors. I enjoyed all of them.

"These wines aren't for everybody," White says. "They're not big enough, they're not bold enough. They're for people like me."

As for them being healthier than most (not all) commercial wines, I think that's a fair statement. I'll let White elaborate.

Todd White
"I have a tenuous relationship with alcohol," White told me. "I spent most of my adult life drinking too much. I think most regular wine drinkers think they drink too much. Most of them believe they should drink less. But they don't want to. That's my customer. My customers are people who want to drink healthier. This is really about brain health."

White said he discovered the kind of wines he now sells completely by accident, and not before tasting a bunch of truly terrible natural wines.

"I was drinking 15% alcohol wines in Napa," White says. "I don't want to poopoo on Napa. The same thing is happening in Bordeaux. I quit drinking for a while, in 2014, in a period I recall as suffering through sobriety. Didn't enjoy that. I thought it was just the alcohol. I didn't know about the additives or anything like this. I started mixing tea and wine, in the winter. I'd put an ounce or so of wine in the teacup, and have a cup of tea with it. You know what? I felt a lot better. I'm not drinking as much alcohol, and I feel a lot better."

A friend recommended that he try some low-alcohol wines produced in Europe, so he went to a wine shop and bought a case.

"Most of them were undrinkable and I poured them down the sink," White said.


Thursday, October 24, 2019

Endorsements for the Nov. 2019 San Francisco election

One of the panels from the mural that has shaken up the school board election.
I hate this election.

I wish there was a ballot measure to end San Francisco's practice of scheduling mayoral elections during odd years. We're spending a lot of money on an election when most city officials are running unopposed. Because there's nothing exciting on the ballot, zealots and professional advocates can have an outsize influence, which is why Juul got its scam proposition on this year's ballot instead of 2020.

Philosophically, it's most important to give endorsements in elections like these. You already know who you're going to vote for in next year's U.S. Presidential race and you don't need my advice. But that school board race is a different story.

I want to praise the San Francisco Chronicle for its best-ever endorsements page. If the Chronicle wasn't consistently in bed with developers, I wouldn't need to do these anymore. I also want to praise Tim Redmond for keeping the San Francisco Bay Guardian's Clean Slate endorsements alive even after the print publication disappeared. Redmond is a little far left for my taste, but he does the most work of any journalist in the city in interviewing the candidates and analyzing the issues, and his endorsements are always a must-read.

I don't know that my endorsements are a must-read, but I am going to vote. Here's who and what I'll be voting for.

San Francisco Mayor: London Breed

Breed was the third best of three good candidates for mayor last year to fill the term of Ed Lee after he died in office. Unfortunately Mark Leno and Jane Kim did not run against her this time and she's going to coast to a full four-year term.
Breed has proven to be very good at one aspect of the job: communicating. She has charisma and is a good spokesperson for the city. As one of our previous mayors is now the state's governor, it's worth keeping an eye on her future politically. She's a Democratic machine candidate and the left doesn't like her; that was also true of Governor Gavin Newsom, but Newsom took more initiatives than he got credit for on homeless issues and gay marriage. Breed hasn't done a whole lot, but she also hasn't mucked up the office, and she has no serious opposition.

City Attorney, Public Defender, Sheriff, Treasurer, Community College Board Member: Whatever

It sucks that five of the seven city jobs on this ballot are going to go to unopposed candidates. This is the main reason I hate this election. Couldn't somebody have challenged Paul Miyamoto for the sheriff's job, or Manohar Raju for public defender? This is what happens when one party machine has too much sway. You can check their names or not: they're going to win anyway.

Photo courtesy Lola M. Chavez/Mission Local
District Attorney: Suzy Loftus

The most interesting and important choice on the ballot. It's the only race with several good candidates and your decision will depend on your politics. Chesa Boudin, who currently works in the public defender's office, is the left-wing candidate: he seems more interested in investigating cops than crimes. Nancy Tung is the right-wing candidate: she wants more drug sweeps in the Tenderloin.
Loftus, currently legal counsel to the sheriff, has previously been a prosecutor and president of the Police Commission, which has oversight over police procedures. She strikes a good balance between supporting criminal justice reform and actually doing the job of prosecutor.

Member, Board of Education: Kirsten Strobel

Earlier this year, the school board voted unanimously to spend $600,000 to paint over a mural at Washington High School that accurately depicted George Washington's life, including portraying slaves and a dead Native American. The mural was painted in the 1930s by a radical artist who wanted to show what American history really looked like. But the school board didn't think students should see history while being educated.
Jenny Lam, a school board member, first voted to destroy the mural. To her credit, after public outcry she shifted her vote to ... covering it up, so that students shouldn't see it. Sheesh. This reminds me of the white people who complain that Whitney Plantation and Monticello now give too many details about slavery. Sometimes the far left and the far right aren't so far apart after all.
Strobel, an administrator at the SF Film Society, and Robert Coleman, an artist, jumped into the race to oppose Lam because of the mural issue. The Chronicle is correct that the mural isn't the only issue facing the school board. But if Lam's judgment is so poor on the one issue we know about, what else is she preventing students from learning?
The Guardian prefers Coleman, a longtime housing activist. I'm going with Strobel because of her nonprofit administrative experience.


Ballot Propositions

Prop A: No

This proposal to issue $600 million in bonds to finance affordable housing will almost certainly pass, so I'm wasting my time here. My objection is that landlords are allowed to pass along the cost to tenants, so people already struggling to make ends meet will have to pay for it.

Prop B: No

The city would change the name of the Department of Aging and Adult Services, which is fine, but would also impose a quota for board members, requiring the commission to include a person with a disability, a veteran and a senior. While I agree with the goal in general, I'm against quotas.

Prop C: NO NO NO NO NO NO NO

San Francisco's board of supervisors sensibly voted to ban sales of tobacco vaping products in the city. Tobacco vaping is a crisis for high-school kids. This proposition is funded by Juul, the evil bastards who are putting mango-flavored high-nicotine tobacco in the pockets of teenagers, dooming them to a lifetime of addiction. Do NOT let Juul and its nicotine-fueled cash machine overturn San Francisco's ban.

Prop D: Yes

This would tax rides on Uber and Lyft and give half the money to Muni, and the other half to the County Transportation Agency. Uber and Lyft are the main reasons for a shortfall in mass transit funding, so it's an elegant solution.

Prop E: Yes

Affordable and educator housing could be built on public land. As long as they're not going to build it on Golden Gate Park, I see no reason not to vote for this.

Prop F: Yes

Major political campaigns like Prop C would be required to divulge the source of their funding. There's also a provision that would prevent people who would profit from a land-use decision from contributing to political campaigns for a year beforehand. It's a small hedge against corruption.

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

Monday, September 30, 2019

California ABC facing three separate whistleblower lawsuits

California's department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which is trying to ram through a controversial program to force restaurant servers to pass a licensing test, is currently facing three separate, active whistleblower lawsuits in state superior court in Sacramento.

If the allegations of its ex-employees are true, the ABC's legal department is a place where vindictive leaders exact retribution on its employees for attempting to follow the law. If there was only one lawsuit, it would be easy to dismiss it as complaints of a disgruntled employee. But these are 3 lawsuits, two completely unrelated, filed by attorneys who worked for years for the organization.

Here's a short summary of each lawsuit.

Adriana Ruelas vs. California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control

Filed in Oct. 2017, this is the most troubling case, and yet it is also not the only time this plaintiff has made accusations like this against an employer.

Ruelas worked for ABC as a Legislative Officer from 2013 until she resigned in 2016. She claims she "witnessed years of racist, sexist, and homophobic statements by ABC Director Timothy Gorsuch and other high level employees within the Department." Ruelas says she was "called a criminal due to her race," and told her child was an "anchor baby." She also claims that at a meeting regarding licensing issues related to a Long Beach Gay Pride event, she "observed Gorsuch mock the event and simulate oral sex by pushing his tongue into the inside of his cheek repeatedly."

(Note that one of the biggest problems with the ABC's intended plan for training servers is the callous disregard for people who do not speak English as a first language, and for restaurant workers with low incomes.)

She also alleges that she suggested that ABC only enforced a law against "drink solicitation" -- where a bar uses employees to seduce patrons into ordering them a drink -- in bars frequented by Latinos. She alleges that a top ABC official told her "only Latinos violate this law" and that Ruelas was probably herself a "B-girl" (the term used by the agency to describe drink solicitors.)


Wednesday, September 25, 2019

California ABC doesn't consider restaurants or workers "stakeholders" in new plan to regulate them

Yesterday the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control did a good thing by extending comment period to Oct. 11 on controversial new regulations that would require almost every restaurant server in the state to get a license and appear in a massive database.

I wrote a very hasty blog post, but I cannot claim any credit for the extended comment period. Beverage attorney John Hinman alerted me and many others to the problem with this fine blog post.

Now that I have a little time, I want to hone in on a problem with ABC's approach in writing these proposed regulations.

First, a quick summary. ABC was charged by the legislature with creating a Responsible Beverage Service training program. The goal is to recognize intoxicated patrons, and not serve them, thus reducing drunk driving.

However, the ABC consulted almost exclusively with law enforcement officials and neo-Prohibitionist groups before writing proposed regulations that, among other things:
* Require restaurant servers to pay a third-party group for certification
* Require servers to pass a test that includes unrelated issues like identifying illegal drugs
* Set up a statewide database for registered restaurant servers, which should cause privacy concerns
* Does not include provisos for servers who do not speak English or Spanish as a first language

Hinman complains that the comment period was fast and was set to end before most people even noticed that it started. Wine Industry Insight publisher Lewis Perdue also wrote Monday that the ABC was trying to sneak through new regulations without the public noticing. It certainly felt that way to me: the first I learned about this massive expansion of state bureaucracy and violation of restaurant servers' privacy was Monday afternoon, and the deadline for comment was Tuesday.

But maybe that's my fault. I'm just Alcohol Media. The ABC could have sent alcohol media -- also including Perdue -- a press release, but nobody likes the media these days. Apparently we should have hung out on the ABC website looking for news.

What's troubling is that apparently the ABC did NOT reach out to the main groups that will be affected by these new regulations: restaurant owners, restaurant managers, and restaurant employees. I will show this below.


Monday, September 23, 2019

Emergency! Your comments needed to stop racist ABC regulations

California's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control was scheduled to end public comment TUESDAY, Sept. 24* on a new regulation that will negatively impact tens of thousands of legal immigrants and working-class people.

Here's the problem: If you want to be a restaurant server -- not a bartender, just a server -- in a place that serves alcohol, you will have to pass a written test devised by neo-Prohibition forces.

UPDATE: The assembly bill requires the course to be available, at a minimum, in Spanish and English.

I live in San Francisco. I'm not sure the last three restaurant servers I had could pass a written test in English -- or Spanish (I went to two Vietnamese family-owned restaurants and one Chinese). They might lose their jobs because of this regulation, which ABC projects to affect 1 million working Californians.

UPDATE: Thanks to a great blog post by beverage attorney John Hinman, the ABC extended the deadline at the last minute to Oct. 11, with an extremely defensive press release. More on that tomorrow. But the good news is, you have time to comment.

We need more time to comment. I will give the comment link below; here is a copy of Hinman's comment.

Let me stand up my high horse here, because I have a level of outrage unusual even for me:

THIS IS RIDICULOUS. YOU DON'T NEED GOOD FACILITY WITH WRITTEN ENGLISH -- OR ANY WRITTEN LANGUAGE -- TO SERVE FOOD AND DRINKS!