Thursday, December 6, 2018

Christmas gifts for wine lovers

If you have a wine lover on your gift list, you might think the best gift is a bottle of wine. That's not untrue -- if you know them well enough to get a bottle they would find delightful.

Sometimes that's easier said than done. If you pick up a $12 bottle at Trader Joe's for your niece the sommelier, she'll thank you because she's polite, but she'll also look for the nearest opportunity to unload it.

Wine gadgets wind up in magazine stories this time of year because we all have to write holiday gift stories, but most gadgets are just more space-eating junk. (Exceptions are below).

Here are some gifts the wine lover on your list will enjoy. I guarantee it!

Wine glasses

Glasses break. We always need more. Look for a simple design, and don't spend too much money. More expensive glassware is often handblown and thus even more likely to break.

I usually buy wine glasses at Cost Plus World Market, but I admit I'm intrigued that this is a product Amazon has decided to make as part of its Amazon Basics series, like batteries. It does make sense: if you need 4 today, you're going to need another 4 soon enough. I have not tried Amazon's glassware but I probably will.


A Coravin

The Coravin is a revolutionary system that allows you to take a glass of wine from a bottle without pulling out the cork, so what's left in the bottle stays fresh longer.

I'm in the middle of reviewing a new $1000 version of the Coravin and I haven't yet decided whether I'll recommend it to readers at Wine Searcher, who can afford $1000. I will say this: a Coravin is a gift no wine lover will reject. We're all curious about it. The plastic one at left is only about $200. Buy it here.

Wine charms

Need something cheap? Wine charms hook around the stem of a wine glass so you can tell your glass from your friends'. They're invaluable at parties. I'm still using a set I got as a present years ago, along with a few others I have picked up since.

Good books that are about wine, but not intros to wine

The problem with most year-end wine book lists is that many of the best books about wine aren't really of interest to a wine lover. I know that seems paradoxical, but we don't need a book that tells us what we already know.

Here are some excellent books that a wine lover will enjoy.

Wine and War: Interesting history of Nazi occupation of French wine country

The Botanist and the Vintner: Phylloxera nearly destroyed wine as we know it. A scientific hero's journey

By the Smoke and the Smell: This one's about artisanal spirits, and it will make the reader thirsty for some

Wine Grapes: The reference book I use more than any other, it tells the history and current state of every commercial wine grape in the world. A must-have for people who like offbeat varietals

A good bottle of amaro

Most wine lovers enjoy amaro, the Italian bitter drink meant as a digestif, but they won't necessarily think to buy a bottle for themselves (and if they do, that means they can use another). A bottle of amaro will last much longer than a bottle of wine. In past years I have recommended whiskey or brandy, and those are also fine ideas: get the wine lover something nice that he wouldn't buy himself. I'm switching to amaro because of the rising price of whiskey. If you're going to buy somebody an artisanal Bourbon now, you have to be very sure they'll love it. In contrast, they can fall in love with an amaro they haven't tried before.

One reason amaros are interesting to wine lovers is that they're very different from each other. My favorite is Braulio (buy it here), but currently I'm enjoying a bottle of Amaro Dell'Erborista (buy it here). There are lots of good choices in this category.

A birth-year wine

That's always going to be welcome. It's also easier to buy than you might think: Just go to Wine-Searcher, put the year into the search engine, and you'll see all the wines available.

For the heck of it, I put in 1979 and came up with 1660 wines! There are a bunch of red Bordeaux from that year for under $100.

You can obsess over which is the best one to buy, but don't bother. I can tell you that, as a serious wine lover who knows vintages matter, I am going to exclaim with surprise and delight if you hand me any bottle from my birth year, no matter what it is. You have my permission to buy the cheap one.

Try entering your (friend's) birth year here. Happy holidays!

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

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Trump, tariffs, and trade barriers to U.S. wine in France: the real facts

Annoyed by French President Emmanuel Macron's ability to stand in the rain and honor World War I dead, our own President Donald Trump tweeted about unfair trade barriers that have prevented French people from drinking more U.S. wines:
A clutch of Francophiles hit social media in the aftermath because they hate Trump and assume he's wrong about everything. But he's not. He's a little off base, because tariffs are not the issue, but this is not a bad tweet by Trump's standards. Let's look at the real facts.

1. Trump starts off absolutely correct. France does make excellent wine, and so does the U.S. Don't lose sight of that.

2. French people would drink U.S. wine if it were cheap enough -- at the low end. Don't kid yourself about the glories of Burgundy and the Jura blah blah blah. French farmers have been overturning tanker trucks bringing cheap bulk wine from Spain because that wine has been taking away their market.


Monday, October 22, 2018

Endorsements for the November 2018 election in San Francisco


This might be the most pivotal election in the U.S. since the Civil War, but locally it's all about school boards and ballot propositions.

I have read the endorsements of the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Los Angeles Times and Sacramento Bee. I have also read the candidates' statements on Smart Voter (which I highly recommend visiting because you can see your specific ballot.) I want to commend Tim Richmond for keeping the Guardian's endorsements alive even after the death of the print publication. He interviews all the candidates and that's a lot of work. I also want to commend the Chronicle, which has done a better job than ever before of endorsing in many races and putting all its endorsements in one easily accessed site that is open to non-subscribers.

If you are outside of San Francisco, please vote Democrat for Congress this time regardless of your political beliefs. We need the balance in the system to prevent a slide into autocracy, and it's obvious the GOP isn't going to do it. The rest of this post is for Californians.

US Senator

Kevin DeLeon

I recently read "Season of the Witch" and gained an appreciation for how earnest, politically centrist Dianne Feinstein helped rebuild San Francisco as appointed mayor after the assassinations of George Moscone and Harvey Milk.* I thank her for her many years of public service. But "politically centrist" is not what California needs in a Senator right now. If the Democrats pull off an upset in the Senate, Feinstein's seniority will get her some committee chairs, but Democrats need committee chairs who don't have a lifelong record of accommodating the GOP. Moreover, everybody is tiptoeing around this issue because they don't want to sound ageist, but I'm gonna say it. Feinstein is 85 years old. If she is re-elected, and doesn't die in office, she will serve through her 91st birthday. That's too old. DeLeon was good as state Senate president and is as qualified as any of our state politicians for this job.

(* She is not the witch. It's a song title. The book is about rougher times than these in San Francisco. Highly recommended.)

District 12, House of Representatives

Nancy Pelosi

Like we have a choice. But to be fair, Pelosi represents current Democratic values way more than Feinstein.

Governor


Newsom. Courtesy San Francisco Chronicle
Gavin Newsom

Newsom had some serious opposition in the primary, but now his opponent is a businessman endorsed by Donald Trump who is pro-border wall and doesn't believe in climate change. I'm done here.

Lt. Governor

Ed Hernandez

Real estate developer Eleni Kounalakis used her family's wealth to buy a spot in this race despite never having won political office before. If you're going to buy an office, this is a good place to start, a heartbeat from the governor's chair (which I have sat in!) Hernandez has been in the state legislature for 12 years. He's not the most exciting candidate, but it's not the most exciting job, and he is more qualified than Kounalakis.


Endorsements continue after the jump

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

My guilty pleasure wine: admitting my youthful transgression

Opening ceremony for a wine competition. I think they're supposed to be ... pollinated?

This story is about one of my guilty pleasures: a transgression of my early drinking days.

It's about a wine I would never have the courage to praise to a professional crowd: a cheap, sweet, mass-produced wine, screwcapped before that was cool, and I didn't even believe it was made from grapes. I liked it and was ashamed to say it.

The one on the right is better; sealed with a synthetic cork
Here is the wine in question: Kuei Hua Chen Chiew. It's made in China by Beijing Dragon Seal Wine Co., and until last month I didn't realize that's a government-owned winery.

When I lived in Tokyo we used to eat sometimes in a southeast Asian restaurant that served spicy food, and their drink menu was limited. I don't like beer, so this is how I discovered Kuei Hua Chen Chiew (I believe it's pronounced Qwee Wa Shen Shew, but I could be wrong.)

For decades, I thought this was plum liquor. The bottle doesn't say -- I think. My then-girlfriend, now my wife, reads Mandarin, and she couldn't glean any information from the bottle.

But she has a sweet tooth and she loooooved Kuei Hua Chen Chiew, which she thought was a cheap, industrial Chinese version of umeshu (people call umeshu Japanese plum "wine," but it's actually made by infusing plums in shochu, which is a distilled spirit.) Kuei Hua Chen Chiew cost about $5 US per bottle in Tokyo and you couldn't get a bottle of anything else that cheap, other than the lowest-grade shochu.

I was young. We drank cheap. 


Thursday, September 6, 2018

An ancient, rare wine that can be beautiful, or smell like old lady's perfume: Lacrima di Morro d'Alba

Lacrima di Morro d'Alba grapes will cry for you -- see below
Even among niche wine lovers, Lacrima di Morro d'Alba is polarizing. When I searched for more info about the grape, one of the highest ranked items I found was Stevie Stacionis' piece "The First Wine I Ever Hated."

The good news is the wine is ancient and really interesting: the King of Burgundy (!) praised it in the year 1167 after conquering the region. It faced extinction in the 20th century, but has been revived as Italy has concentrated on rediscovering its indigenous wines.

Stacionis complains that the wine smells like her great aunt's perfume, and I can see that. It's an unusual category of grape: an aromatic red. Its best qualities are usually all in the nose, and if there were no exceptions to that, I wouldn't be writing this. Fortunately, I found two reasons to drink a really weird and unique varietal.

Lacrima di Morro d'Alba smells like gingerbread, anise, dried flowers and plums -- like some sort of European Christmas hot beverage. It's not shy: the aromas jump out of the glass. But for most of the wines, the flavors are underwhelming. It's a light-bodied wine and without sufficient fruit on the palate, those aromas quickly shift from intriguing to cloying. There's often also a balance problem, as producers do one thing wrong and try to fix it by doing something else wrong.

There are a couple of exceptions: the wines of Stefano Mancinelli and Marotti Campi. Of seven Lacrima di Morro d'Alba wines I tasted at a seminar in Marche, Italy, these are the only ones I want to drink.

Because only about 30 producers make only about 80,000 total cases, it's possible these are the best Lacrima di Morro d'Alba wines that have ever been made in the history of the world.


Tuesday, August 14, 2018

How to buy sake at a Japanese grocery store: a pictorial guide

A Japanese grocery store is generally a terrific place to buy sake for selection, price and freshness -- which is very important. However, I have never seen anyone get useful advice from store staff. In making a choice, you're generally on your own.

I took some photos at Nijiya in San Francisco to help you out. The Japanese grocery store in your city may have a different selection, but the buying principles will still apply.

1) Most (not all) of the good sakes will be in the refrigerated section


Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Can you bring cheese into the U.S. from Europe? YES YOU CAN!

Raw-milk Reblochon is my favorite of the cheeses sold in French duty-free
First, the short answer: if you are flying home from Europe or elsewhere, you can bring cheese into the U.S. for personal consumption.

I'm writing this post to counter persistent misinformation, even from what one would think are reliable sources.

I hope that some editor at USA Today sees this blog post and corrects this completely wrong story. This was the No. 1 result when we searched for an answer to the question last month in France. Yo Google, help me out here -- make my post with the correct information No. 1 please.

(Before I go further, here is the correct information from the official U.S. Customs and Border Protection site. I'll get into it in detail in a moment.)

Last month I had a long and frustrating argument at a duty-free shop in Lyon, France. I wanted to buy three raw-milk cheeses: a Roquefort, a Reblochon and a hunk of Beaufort. The clerk refused to sell them to me. She said I could not bring them into the U.S.

After insisting first that I was right, and second that the risk was mine not hers, I asked to speak to her supervisor. She also refused to sell me the cheese.

Most people would have given up. The supervisor in the duty-free shop must know U.S. law, right?