Friday, July 31, 2009

Trading deadline deals

St. Helena (AP) -- In a stunning transaction, Napa Valley today traded its summer sun to Bordeaux for its history and international reputation.

"We think it's a good deal for both clubs," said Napa Valley manager Joe Torrid.

The deal will allow Bordeaux wineries to achieve greater consistency, no longer relying on two or three great vintages a decade. At the same time, Napa Valley wineries making 60,000 cases a year should now be able to sell their wine at $400 a bottle and up based on their newly acquired reputation.

"You can't get something good without giving something up," said Bordeaux GM Jacques Strap. "We'll have to get by without our brand recognition, particularly in the Chinese market. But we're getting a lot here -- more ripe fruit in good years, fewer bad years."

Observers said the bold move was prompted by the weak wine market.

"Both teams had problems they wanted to solve," said Rob Neyers Syrah of ESPWine. "Napa Valley can't move its small production $125 wines because nobody who doesn't subscribe to Wine Advocate has heard of them. Bordeaux has moved its prices up so high that it doesn't know what to do with off vintages, so they decided the extra sun should eliminate the off vintages. I can see this point, but I like this deal for Napa. They can get by with less sun, and it might even help them with global warming."

Adelaide (Reuters) -- After talks that stretched on for months, Australia today traded its technological advances and international reputation for good cheap wines to the Rhone Valley in exchange for more dignified labels and a French accent.

Australian bloggers were outraged about the deal. One prominent critic, MattRoy Holiday, said, "We're giving them millions, maybe billions of dollars of research, and all we're getting out of it is the ability to say my name without the 'h' and have people not laugh about it."

Defending the deal, Australia GM William Bean said, "Look, we had to move that reputation. It was strapping us down. I know this is an unusual deal, but it gives us greater flexibility. The machine harvesters in particular are a hard loss, but this gives us the chance to rebuild."

ESPWine's Neyers Syrah wrote, "It's a painful pill to swallow for Australia, but you have to give Bean credit for realizing bold action was needed. They weren't selling any $25 or up Shirazes -- pardonnez-moi, les Syrahs -- even though their wines in that price range are every bit as good, if not better, than the Rhone's. The labels were a throw-in; I think the prospect they really wanted in this deal was the accent. The D'Arenbergs in my cellar sound more appealing already."

New York (Bloomberg) -- In a surprise move, Wine Writers today traded the phrase "summer sipper" to Basketball Announcers for "young freshman."

Dick Vitale was quick to praise the trade, saying, "UCLA is now loaded with summer sippers, baby!"

Meanwhile, wine writers were calling it a trade with an eye on the future.

"When you talk about young freshman wines, you're talking about wines with a chance to develop, and that's promising," said James Loud Bee. "We haven't had this phrase in the past and I think it adds a lot, but it will take time to really know for sure. I'm going to start tasting some young freshmen immediately."

Word industry analysts said the trade, though made at this year's deadline, could presage a winter full of similar deals.

"The movie industry has wanted to get ahold of 'toothsome' from restaurant menu writers for some time," said Leonard Pinth Garnel of Words R Us. "With its strong farm system of adjectives like 'thrilling' and 'action-packed,' I'm sure something can be worked out."

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Vintners Hall of Fame ballot

With Rickey Henderson and Jim Rice going into the Baseball Hall of Fame this week, a few people have asked me about the 2010 Vintners Hall of Fame induction class. Do we have a clear first-ballot Hall of Famer like Rickey this year? You be the judge.

Voting is going on right now, with wine writers from around the US, as well as all living members of the Vintners Hall of Fame, casting ballots to see who is inducted into the Hall next year.

Since I'm Chairman of the Electoral College, I wouldn't feel right talking about how the voting is going. I have a vote and have already cast it, but I also don't think it's right for me to say who I voted for.

However, the ballot has already been sent to plenty of media members, with no restrictions on its publication. So I don't see any reason not to reproduce it here.

Just being on the ballot is an honor, as I think all of these people would be worthy members of the Hall, which recognizes contributions to California wine.

The first group of names are people eligible for the general category. The Pioneer category, the second group, is open to people who will have been deceased for 10 years on the induction date in March 2010. But this distinction is purely for voting purposes. Once inducted, a Hall of Famer is a Hall of Famer.

A list of people already in the Hall is here. If you want to see their plaques, drop by the Culinary Institute of America's Greystone campus in St. Helena. It may not have the same quality of baseball as Cooperstown, NY, but I guarantee you the food is better.

Robert Lawrence Balzer

In 1936, Balzer (then 24) was put in charge of the wine department of his family's Los Angeles gourmet market. He began championing California wines and soon produced a well-read newsletter. That led to a career in wine journalism that has stretched for seven decades, including 11 books on wine and a weekly column in the Los Angeles Times. In addition to being a great educator for the public, he has always been an advocate for good California wines. Balzer oversaw food and wine at the inaugurations of Ronald Reagan in 1981 and 1985 and George H.W. Bush in 1989. In addition to his wine talents, Balzer was a flight instructor during World War II and is an ordained Buddhist monk.

Andy Beckstoffer

Beckstoffer came to Napa in 1969 as an executive for Heublein. He saw the value in Napa Valley vineyards, and by 1973 he bought the vineyard division he had helped the company build. Since then Beckstoffer Vineyards has grown to be the largest vineyard owner and farmer in the Napa Valley, delivering over 11,000 tons of grapes to more than 50 of the state's most famous wineries. Beckstoffer helped establish the idea of paying growers based on what the finished bottle would cost, thus reducing the incentive for excessive yield and focusing growers on quality. He has played a major role in preserving agriculture in the Napa Valley and has contributed to efforts to restore the Napa River.

Ted Bennett & Deborah Cahn

In 1974, Bennett & Cahn sold a successful stereo business and purchased a 900-acre sheep ranch in Mendocino County to grow Pinot Noir and Gewurztraminer because they believed its soils and climate to be similar to Alsace. Their winery, Navarro Vineyards, eventually helped establish Anderson Valley as prime terroir for cool-climate viticulture. They produce about 30,000 cases per year, and their Gewurztraminer is still one of the most popular in the state.

Al Brounstein

Brounstein's Diamond Creek Vineyards, established in 1968, was the first estate planted only with Cabernet Sauvignon. Brounstein noticed three distinct soil types on his property, so he became one of the first California wineries to produce different Cabernet Sauvignons from single vineyards on the same estate. His 1978 Lake Vineyard Cab -- a wine produced only in exceptional years -- was the first California wine with a suggested retail price of $100 a bottle. This may not be a happy milestone for consumers, but for a California wine industry that had always struggled to survive -- and had been nearly wiped out by Prohibition less than two generations earlier -- it was an important symbol that California wine had arrived. Brounstein's wines have always aged well and they have become his legacy.

Gary Eberle

Eberle was working on his doctorate in zoology at Louisiana State when he caught the wine bug. He graduated from UC Davis' doctoral winemaking program in 1973. But instead of going to Napa or Sonoma, he headed to Paso Robles, where he has been a leader in establishing that area as a premium wine region. Eberle co-founded the Paso Robles Appellation in 1980. Today Eberle Winery makes 25,000 cases per year. After a 10-year stint mentoring and supervising other winemakers, Eberle returned to the tanks himself in 2007 to make a reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

Randall Grahm

Known as an enfant terrible during his years at UC Davis, Grahm told everyone who would listen he would make the first great American Pinot Noir. Instead he found himself entranced by what he calls "ugly duckling grape varietals" and has succeeded in introducing many American consumers to a world beyond Cab and Chard. His "Le Cigar Volant" wine proved that it was possible to make and sell great Rhone wine blends from California. His amusing marketing still defies pretensions and gets attention, such as when he held a funeral for cork in New York City in 2002. Grahm, a longtime proponent of biodynamic viticulture, sold his Big House and Cardinal Zin labels in 2006 to concentrate on smaller production wines.

Josh Jensen

A native Californian, Jensen went to Burgundy after getting his master's degree in anthropology from Oxford and worked two harvests, including one at Domaine Romanee-Conti. Legend has it that he smuggled clones of DRC's Pinot Noir vines to the US in his pants on a trans-Atlantic flight. In any case, he planted Pinot atop Mt. Harlan because of its limestone soils, which he found by searching maps from the state's bureau of mines. The location is so remote that it has no electricity, phones or paved roads, but Jensen was convinced it was the perfect terroir. For more than 30 years he has been one of America's leading Pinot Noir makers making elegant, ageworthy, vineyard-designated wines from a still-primitive location.

Zelma Long

The second female UC Davis-trained winemaker in California, Long was the only woman in her class. She made some exceptional wines as enologist at Robert Mondavi Winery while also founding Long Vineyards, her private label in 1977. Long co-founded the North Coast Viticultural Research Group, which funded vineyard research at UC Davis. She spent the '80s and '90s breaking the glass ceiling at Simi as winemaker/CEO, becoming one of the first women to run both the winemaking and business side of a California winery. Today she is a partner in Vilafonte winery in South Africa, and still flies home to oversee vintages at Long Vineyards.

Robert M. Parker Jr.

Parker took a giant leap of faith in publishing his first Wine Advocate newsletter in 1978. At the time, he was a lawyer who thought wines were not being priced in relation to their quality. Parker's easily understood ratings and user-friendly tasting notes have helped many boutique wineries establish themselves -- if Parker gives an unknown wine a high rating, it can sell out without any trouble from the three-tier distribution system that blocks the success of many small wineries. He has been a champion of California wines from the beginning of his career. Parker's prestige has helped project the influence of the American wine community throughout the world, as European wineries now focus more on the American media than on their UK counterparts.

Richard (Dick) Peterson

Peterson is so revered in his native Iowa that there's a Dick Peterson Trophy for the best local wine. But his major contributions came in California. As one of the "rocket scientist" flavor engineers employed by Gallo, Dick Peterson developed many products, including the first wine cooler and Hearty Burgundy, that made his bosses millions. He also developed a safe barrel-stacking system, the Peterson Pallet, still used in many wineries today. As winemaster at Beaulieu Vineyard from 1968 to 1973 he oversaw the production of some of the most highly regarded Cabernet Sauvignons of the era. He also helped put Monterey on the map of premium winegrape regions. Even today Peterson is still experimenting, making sparkling wine from a unique Pinot Noir clone he found growing wild in England.

Kent Rosenblum

A veterinarian by trade, Rosenblum began home winemaking in the early 1970s and quickly became fascinated by the differences in grapes from different vineyards. In 1978 he founded Rosenblum Cellars with an emphasis on single-vineyard old-vine Zinfandel. Rosenblum made excellent wines from areas like Contra Costa County where the grapes had previously gone into California-appellation blends. Locating his winery in an old airplane hangar in Alameda, Rosenblum anticipated the trend of urban-based wineries. Rosenblum also never forgot his home winemaker roots, as he continued to sell high-quality grapes from famous vineyards in small quantities to home winemakers right up until he sold the winery in 2008. He has since founded a small winery in Alameda, Rock Wall Wine Company.

Richard Sanford

A Burgundy fan, Sanford graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in geography in 1965 but was immediately drafted. He got out of the Navy in the late 1960s with a passion for Pinot Noir. He drove across Santa Barbara County with a thermometer before settling on a site west of U.S. Highway 101 in the Santa Ynez Valley. For some years Sanford had the west side of the highway to himself; he was the first winemaker to prove the potential for Pinot Noir in the chilly Santa Rita Hills. He founded Sanford Winery in 1981 and spent the next 20 years making some of the best regarded Pinot Noirs from the region. Sanford left his namesake winery in 2005 and founded Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards.

Vernon Singleton

An expert on wine chemistry, Professor Singleton spent more than four decades in the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology, retiring in 1991. He published more than 220 papers and four books. "Wine: An Introduction for Americans," co-authored with Maynard Amerine, remains among the most widely read books of its kind, even decades after its last printing. "Principles and Practices of Winemaking," co-authored with three UC Davis colleagues, is a textbook used worldwide. Professor Singleton is best known for his identification, characterization and transformation of the many phenolic substances in wine, including tannins. He also studied the contributions of barrel aging to wine phenolic composition and the role of oxygen in wine maturation.

Stephen Spurrier

An Englishman who advocated American wine in Paris, Spurrier arranged the most important tasting in the history of California wine, the Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976. Spurrier went to great lengths to find the best wines to represent California at the tasting, and to line up highly respected French judges. The results, in which California reds won both the red and white categories, unexpectedly shattered the myth of French wine superiority and promoted the expansion of wine production throughout the New World.

Bob Thompson

Bob Thompson's long career at Sunset Books includes "The Wine Atlas of California and the Pacific Northwest" and the "The California Wine Book," written in 1976 in conjunction with Hugh Johnson. His publications have long advocated both quality and food-friendliness in wine.

Pioneer Category

Leon Adams

A founder of the Wine Institute and leading historian of wine in the United States, Adams is best known for his 1973 book "The Wines of America," which captured the state of the wine industry in areas both prosperous and less known. He was an advocate for farm winery bills of the 1970s and '80s that allowed grape growers across the U.S. to open wineries.

Richard Graff

A former Navy officer with a Harvard degree in music, Graff purchased Chalone Vineyards in 1965, which had been producing mistletoe, and nursed its neglected grapevines back to life. Graff, who had spent time in Burgundy studying the effects of barrel aging, quickly began producing Pinot Noirs better than anyone then believed California was capable of. He eventually became chairman of Chalone Wine Group, owner of several other small boutique wineries.

Eugene Hilgard

From 1875 to 1904, Hilgard was Professor of Agricultural Chemistry at UC Berkeley. Considered California's first academic scholar of wine, Hilgard ran a lifelong campaign against poor-quality wine, pointing out better cellar techniques whenever possible. He conducted important research into fighting phylloxera, and his studies of grape varieties were very influential in determining which grapes were planted in California. Hilgard was a giant in scientific research of wine at a time when few people anywhere were conducting it.

Paul Masson

A native of Burgundy, Masson emigrated to California in 1878. By importing equipment and top grape varieties from France, in the 1890s Masson produced California's first world-class sparkling wine. Running his own eponymous winery as well as Almaden, he was America's best-known winemaker of his era, and a leader in the drive to save vineyards from phylloxera by planting resistant rootstock. During Prohibition he kept his vineyards alive by producing "medicinal Champagne." During his lifetime Masson was known as the "Champagne king of California."

Frank Schoonmaker

Born in Spearfish, South Dakota, Schoonmaker became interested in wine while writing travel articles on France. He wrote "Complete Wine Book" in 1934, reintroducing a Prohibition-shackled country to wine. The book launched him into position as the premier wine writer in the United States for more than three decades. Schoonmaker was also an influential importer. He was the earliest, most constant advocate for varietal labelling, saying, "The more specific the name, the better the wine."

Albert Winkler

Professor Winkler joined the Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis in 1921 and retired in 1963. He served as chairman from 1933 to 1957. His research elucidated the physiological principles that form the basis for grapevine trellising and canopy management. In a series of classic field experiments, he demonstrated the depressing effect of pruning on vine growth, crop yield and vine capacity and how pruning and crop level can be used to control vine growth. He investigated the relationship between ambient temperature and time of fruit maturity and showed that a constant amount of accumulated heat units is required for a given variety to reach maturity, irrespective of where grown. This work led directly to the regional classification of California's grape growing areas into five climatic regions, along with recommendations of what grape varieties do best in each of the regions. His classic textbook "General Viticulture" has been used by thousands of winemakers and grape growers and translated into several languages.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Zinfandel makes a comeback in its native land

Zinfandel is often considered California's native grape because we were the first to make fine wine out of it. The grape is actually from Croatia, but it was almost extinct there when its DNA identity was confirmed in 2001.

Here's how close it got: In 4 years of searching, two professors from University of Zagreb found only 25 vines of Crljenak Kastelanski (CK), the vine that is genetically identical to Zin.

In the last 5 years, thanks to Zin's fame in California, Croatians are replanting it. I had a chance to taste some wines from these new plantings Tuesday at Grgich Hills Estate in Rutherford.

There's good and bad news about this comeback. Because the few scraggly old CK vines left in Croatia were infected with viruses, the replanting -- now over 185,000 vines -- is being done with Primitivo from Italy.

Primitivo is also genetically identical to Zinfandel. CK somehow made it to New England in the 1830s as an ornamental grape and came out to California with the Gold Rush. People quickly loved it for its fruitiness and large crops. It's now believed that Italians who went back home from California took Zin with them, calling it Primitivo. Zin and Primitivo were both thriving in new lands in the late 1800s while CK was dying off in its homeland because of, ironically, new fungal diseases from America.

Geneticist Ivan Pejic says that the use of Primitivo, instead of cloned CK, is not a problem. But minute variations make a huge difference in grapevines; think of the interest vintners have in which clone of Chardonnay or Pinot Noir they're cultivating.

The good news is that UC Davis is currently propagating some of the original 25 CK vines virus-free, and they should be available for re-importation into Croatia within three years.

"We waited hundreds of years to find it," Pejic says. "We can wait another five."

In the meantime, the main difference in flavor between Croatian CK and Napa Valley Zinfandel is more a product of climate than clones. Croatia gets much more rain than most of California, is more humid during the summer, and doesn't have cool evening temperatures. Imagine a wetter Paso Robles -- where the Zin does reasonably well -- and you've got an idea.

We only tasted four Croatian CKs; there just aren't that many bottles in existence. One of them, from Zlatan Plenkovic winery on the Island of Hvar, was exciting because it was the first wine actually labeled Crljenak Kastelanski in the modern history of the world. Sadly, it had so much brett that it smelled like rubber tires. The winery did a much better job with a 2007 dessert wine made from CK, which had dark cherry and kirsch liquor notes without the excessive sweetness that plagues most California Zinfandel Ports (most of which are made because the grapes got too ripe).

The other two non-dessert CKs were more representative of the grape's potential. A 2007 from brand-new Marinovic & Djuric winery in Dubrovnik was an appealing fruit bowl, with notes of raspberry and blackberry pie filling. It was quite tannic and the new oak made its presence known with vanilla notes, but the vivacious fruit was positively Californian.

The University of Zagreb's Faculty of Agriculture made an experimental bottling of 2007 CK without the oak influence that was pretty on the nose and more restrained on the palate, with more red cherry fruit and a Pinot-like delicacy.

None of the three wines had the black pepper notes that Zinfandel develops in cooler climates like Dry Creek Valley, but whether that's a function of the clone or the climate is hard to say.

Mike Grgich, who hosted the event, also has a winery in Croatia. I finally got to taste one of his Croatian wines, a 2006 Plavac Mali. These are not exported because they sell out in Croatia. The wine was complex and interesting, with cherry and raspberry fruit, savory notes of tomato juice and sweet ham, and some spearmint in the aroma. However, it was fairly astringent. "We buy grapes and a lot of people aren't giving you what you pay for," said Grgich's nephew Ivo Jeramaz, his VP of Vineyards & Production. "That's why we like to be estate."

Plavac Mali is the lovechild of CK and a grape called Dobricic. A 2006 Bura Plavac Mali from Dingac showed its great potential: it had bright cherry fruit, but also a savory roasted red pepper character, with some clove notes in the aroma. Big-bodied but balanced, this wine stayed bright and complex through a long finish.

For comparison purposes, we tasted Grgich Hills' 2006 Napa Valley Zinfandel, which I didn't care for, and the 2005 Grgich Hills Miljenko's Old Vines Napa Valley Zinfandel ($85). The price is crazy, especially these days, even given that the biodynamically dry-farmed vines are 115 years old and less than 300 cases are made.

But I love this wine. I have loved past vintages, and I loved the '05. It's a wine that keeps giving you more nuances the longer you spend with it, and its balance shows Grgich's European sensibility. It opens with pretty raspberry notes along with a darker cherry, then a rush of pomegranate ushers in savory notes of smoked ham and sea salt. On one sip I noticed red apple skin; another time I thought I smelled roasted yams. This is the kind of wine that will keep you interested throughout the bottle. It tends not to get super-high ratings from a certain lover of ripe fruit bombs because it's not. But I think this wine has star power; it compels you to keep paying attention to it.

Mike Grgich is 86 now but still hale. He greeted everyone beforehand and took time to stand and chat with everyone afterward. He says his winery in Peljesac is like a paradise, on the coast with beautiful views and great weather, but he can only visit once or twice per year now because at his age travel isn't easy anymore. I asked if he considered moving back there, trying to hide the morbidity of the question. Mike was all smiles; even at 86 he's loving life.

"All my friends are here," Grgich said. "I've been here 50 years. Everyone I knew in Croatia is dead or moved. This is my home now. There it is paradise, but here is also paradise, and it is where I want to be."

You and Zinfandel both, Miljenko, you and Zinfandel both.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Wine robots in Pennsylvania

Politically, Pennsylvania is a weird state, and its wine culture reminds us of that now and then.

Like last week, when the state announced it will be using remote-control kiosks to sell wine in supermarkets. Fair enough; in Japan, you can buy all sorts of things from vending machines, including bags of rice, Bibles, and pornography. (Usually these machines are separate.)

But the political weirdness of Pennsylvania has led to some really weird design parameters.

These machines, to be placed in grocery stores, won't just take your $6 and dispense a bottle of White Zinfandel. They'll also check your ID and give you a breathalyzer test.

Moreover, while the main purpose of vending machines is to reduce the need for sales staff, these apparently won't do that at all. A state employee -- and importantly, a union member -- will be sitting in a remote location watching the whole thing on camera. If your breath smells like bourbon in Punxsutawney, they'll know it in Harrisburg.

So why build these life-size mousetraps at all? Why not just let the grocery stores sell wine?

Well, therein lies a Tale Between Two Cities.

Philadelphia is by far the state's largest city, and it's not so different from its nearby neighbor Baltimore: blue-collar, liberal and more sophisticated than the natives admit. Pittsburgh is a a rust-belt city akin to nearby Cleveland.

In between the two, it's Utah. There's a large number of Amish and other religious groups who think wine is evil. They've formed an interesting coalition with labor unions and the state government; all three conspire to keep good wine from people for their own reasons.

All Pennsylvania wine buying and selling is run by the state's Liquor Control Board. Sometimes this actually has advantages; as a giant retailer, the state has the power to dictate terms to suppliers and occasionally gets some great discounts. However, on sales of all wine, beer and spirits, the state rakes in huge taxes that the government has come to depend on. Every now and then there's a move to eliminate the LCB, but the state government would collapse without it.

The LCB is unionized, which means thousands of secure jobs, which keeps urban liberal politicians from complaining too much about it.

And then of course you have the neo-Prohibitionists, who think a free market in booze would turn the state, socially, into a horror show. Like, say, California. They're probably not wrong. Let your local convenience store sell Clos du Bois and the next thing you know, people are demanding gay marriage.

Anyway, the manned, breathalzying, ID-checking robots sound really silly. But I'll take the PLCB at their word that they're really trying to improve customer service.

In that case, the agency needs to put a friendly face on these robots. I have a couple suggestions:

The Data Kiosk: "I've taken the liberty of scanning your shopping cart. This barrel-fermented Chardonnay will be the perfect accompaniment for your roast chicken. It has acceptable total acidity of 0.67% because the diurnal temperature variation during the vintage year allowed the grapes to respire in the evening. The dry extract is ..."

Rosie The Retailer: "Oh, sir, I know just the right bottle, let me check my memory circuits. The last time your wife was here she had a Merlot. Come closer, let me straighten your tie."

Model B-9, Class M-3 General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Control Robot: "Please breathe into the receptacle. Warning! Danger, Edward Rendell. This customer shows levels of intoxication. Warning! Warning! Danger, Edward Rendell!"

RoboSommelier: "Halibut with Cabernet is a Violation of Section 3.7 of the Sommelier Code. Step away from the kiosk. This is your first warning. Step away from the kiosk or put the halibut down. This is your second warning."

R2,Advocate2: "Eep ep eep ep ep ep ep 94 points."

Friday, July 24, 2009

More on sushi, sake and philosophy

My last post, about how sushi and sake are great together, inspired some interesting conversations with Japanese people.

One Japanese chef asked me, bewildered, why I would ever suggest that sushi might not go with sake. I had to explain, in Japanese, that some Americans have written that because they're both made from rice, it seems like a conflict. That just led to more bewilderment. Did they think one serving of rice is too much? Do they think there's a rice shortage? I tried to explain that they see themselves as culinary perfectionists.

"But sushi and sake are perfect together," he said. "Do they dislike rice?" I couldn't answer that.

The more interesting conversation I had was with a former waiter from a Japanese restaurant, who had a pretty good theory. Americans order much more nigori sake than Japanese. Nigori, in many ways, is the white Zinfandel of sake. It's a great entry point, it's a little sweet, and it's easy for beginners to enjoy. It's also not the greatest drink for pairing with some kinds of food. Because of its sweetness and milky texture, nigori sake is good with food with a little spiciness (also like white Zin). But it isn't a great match with the delicate flavors of most sushi (spicy tuna rolls are another story.)

This makes some intuitive sense. So let me modify: Most sake is great with sushi. If you want to be a perfectionist about it, you might seek out a drier, leaner sake. Japanese people drink a lot more honjozo sake than Americans, and honjozos, with a leaner profile, tend to be good with raw fish.

That said, daiginjos can be floral and are rarely very dry, yet they're often served in the finest sushi bars, perhaps because they're considered the most refined sakes. I personally like junmai ginjos best with sushi, because non-ginjo junmais are often a little heavy, and I like having something with more expansive flavor than a honjozo.

Tell you what: Experiment with different sakes, beers, wines (try Pinot Gris) and sushi, and see what you think works best.

I'm still stunned at the idea that any American foodies could proclaim that sushi and sake, which Japanese have been drinking together for centuries, is somehow not a great combo for philosophical reasons. The nigori theory sheds some light on it.

But my own philosophy is so different. I don't believe in telling people, "Don't drink that with that." Would I drink Cabernet Sauvignon with chicken vindaloo? No way. But you go ahead. I might suggest something different with the vindaloo: beer, cider or, hey, nigori sake.

Beyond that, I can't imagine going to Alsace and telling people their wines don't go with choucroute, or telling Italians not to have limoncello as a digestif. Nor would I tell Georgians that their barbecue doesn't go with Coca-Cola. Who am I to pronounce judgment on someone else's culinary culture?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Sake with sushi: dispelling a myth

A food blogger recently told me there's a belief among culinary types that sushi doesn't go with sake. The idea is that because sake is made from rice, it isn't served with rice-based dishes like sushi.

I found evidence of this meme in a book called The Connoisseur's Guide to Sushi, which recommends having tea or beer.

Both of those beverages are perfectly fine sushi partners. But let me assure you, in Japan people drink plenty of sake with sushi.

Beer is common, to be sure, but that's because Japanese drink more than 8 times as much beer as sake. Sake made up only 8 percent of Japan's liquor consumption in 2006, according to Japan's national tax agency.

However, sake is consumed at a much higher rate in sushi bars than in the izakayas that are supposedly designed for sake -- in fact, beer is the dominant beverage in Japan's izakayas. The reason is both style and substance. Sake is seen as a refined beverage, matching the upscale image of sushi. And rice-on-rice be damned, sake and sushi are great together.

One thing I hate about this misnomer is its negative, prescriptive nature. It's not a meme that says, "try green tea with sake, it's great." Instead, it's "don't have this combination that people have been enjoying for centuries, 'cause I'm a culinary expert and I say it's wrong."

Another thing I hate about it is its cultural ignorance.

As someone who spent more than 8 years in Japan, and holds a fluency certificate from the Japanese government (and also sometimes holds my Japanese wife), I'm both amused and annoyed by this sort of meme promulgated by Americans who maybe visited for a week, ran their silly theory by a Japanese person and misinterpreted the "hai" they got in response as "yes" instead of "I'm listening." Japanese culture strongly forbids open disagreement, so Japanese people will almost never correct your mistakes.

Example: When the Orioles signed Koji Uehara last winter, the Baltimore Sun ran incorrect pronunciation guides of his name for a whole week. Japanese grammar is challenging, but it's a very easy language to pronounce. Any Japanese reader could have corrected it, but apparently none did (and it took the paper a week to listen to me and a few other non-Japanese).

During that same week, Americans who had been assistant English teachers in Japan posted a variety of signs they recommended fans hold up for Uehara, such as an attempted translation of "Go Orioles" which really meant either "Orioles leave town" or "Orioles have an orgasm." Sorry, but Uehara's not that good.

Sushi and sake together just might be, though. Go sake!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Predatory lenders and vineyard workers

Almost all of the vineyard workers in California are Mexican. Tending vines pays well compared to other types of agriculture, so they're far from destitute. But the men who harvest the grapes that go into your Napa and Sonoma County wines generally have no hope of buying a home in the area.

It's a common misconception that many of these guys are illegal aliens. There are some migrant workers on harvest crews, who may not have their papers checked carefully for a few days' work. But the majority of established wineries keep fulltime, legal vineyard crews.

Housing them is always a problem, though. If you work in St. Helena, where even small houses cost more than $700,000, it's inconceivable to live close by while making $12 an hour. Vineyard workers are forced to look for cheap accommodation up to an hour's drive away, in Lake County, Vallejo and the other outskirts of wine country.

Some wineries own dormitories where the guys live. One of the great experiences of my career was spending a night with the Seghesio crew. The dorms aren't uncomfortable, but it's hardly the American or Mexican dream to work hard yet spend one's adult life living in an all-men's dorm.

I had a distressing conversation with a VP for a large Napa Valley winery last week, who told me that at his company, many vineyard workers had been taken advantage of by predatory lenders.

The lenders speak Spanish, and they assure the workers that the lease will work out. Most US natives can't read and understand a mortgage agreement without legal help, so what hope does a Mexican worker with poor language skills have? The VP told me a lot of his employees trusted the suit-wearing compadre with the official title who told them, you too can live the American dream.

I chewed on this tidbit for a few days. Frankly, it deserves better treatment than this one-off blog post. A newspaper could do it more justice, with some interviews of workers who have lost everything and now have bad credit to boot, and some examples of the unpayable mortgages they signed. Unfortunately, I also have to try to make a living and can't devote that kind of time to this story.

So I'm throwing it out there for the wider world. Anybody who wants to write about this story -- predatory Spanish-speaking lenders hoodwinking vineyard workers -- please do so.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Peaches from Pope Valley -- a visit to Dollarhide Ranch

Napa Valley is not known for biodiversity, and no wonder, since wine grapes fetch a fortune compared to everything else. The exception is D0llarhide Ranch.

The 1500-acre ranch is owned by St. Supery, which stands out among major Napa Valley wineries as a Sauvignon Blanc specialist.

Visiting last weekend, I expected to see some grapevines and taste some good wines. I didn't expect to nosh the best nectarine I've had in a long time. Turns out that celebrity chefs Thomas Keller, Alice Waters and Cindy Pawlcyn share my taste in stone fruit -- heritage varieties that might not be beautiful, but are brimming with intense flavor.

Dollarhide Ranch is in Pope Valley, on the far east side of Napa County. The fog rarely clears Howell Mountain, so Pope Valley is significantly hotter than Rutherford, where St. Supery's winery is located.

When I think of great Sauvignon Blanc climate, I think of cool, rainy New Zealand. The temperature hit 104 (40 Celsius) while I was sweating in the shade at Dollarhide, and I really wondered how St. Supery's wines keep the crispness for which they're well known. VP of Vineyard Operations Josh Anstey, who lives on the ranch, assured me that the temperatures drop below 50 degrees some nights.

The temperature variation is key to allowing the grapes to maintain their acidity. At the same time, the abundant sun and heat allow them to get very ripe, giving bright fruit flavors without the pyrazines that turn to strong herbal flavors in New Zealand. If there's a good "California style" of Sauvignon Blanc, this is it.

How big is Dollarhide Ranch? Anstey says it contains 10% of all the Sauvignon Blanc grapes in Napa Valley. There's also 200 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as smaller plantings of Semillon, Chardonnay, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Muscat. The Cab is grown on hillsides, where it can get some relief from the heat, while the Sauvignon Blanc grows on the flatlands.

The Sauvignon Blanc vines are all recent. There were no grapevines when St. Supery owner Robert Skalli, who lives in southern France, bought it from a cattle rancher in 1983. Skalli planted Cab and Sauvignon Blanc, but he took bad advice from UC Davis and planted all of the Sauvignon Blanc on AXR1 rootstock. Within a decade the ranch was infested with phylloxera, the root-sucking scourge, and all of the Sauvignon Blanc vines had to be ripped out and replanted.

Ironically, St. Supery developed its reputation for great Sauvignon Blanc during the replanting time (1995-2004), when it was purchasing many of its Sauv Blanc grapes. Now, all of the winery's Sauv Blanc grapes come from Dollarhide, Anstey says. There is a Dollarhide Ranch-labeled single-vineyard wine, but that's just 500 cases of a cherry-picked tank selection.

"We bought a lot of Sauvignon Blanc grapes from a lot of high-reputation growers from all over Napa Valley, but the fruit from this ranch was always better," Anstey says.

I loved the 2008 St. Supery Dollarhide Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($38), which has a fresh, green-fruit character. It's crisply refreshing with strong grapefruit flavors and notes of guava skin, and it's just the right tonic on a hot day.

But the grapes aren't the best fruit on the ranch. Anstey also has 1000 fruit trees, including 60 different heritage varieties of peaches as well as nectarines, pluots, apricots and Asian pears. Anstey sells the fruit to Bay Area restaurants, including the French Laundry, Ad Hoc, Chez Panisse and Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen.

"It's something special to pick a peach in the morning and deliver it to a restaurant in the afternoon," Anstey says. "The biggest thing most commercial peach growers think of now is shipability. Flavor's not the most important thing. Some of these peaches aren't going to get as big and beautiful as the ones you see in Safeway."

When Anstey handed me an Arctic Sweet white nectarine that he pulled off the tree, I took a tentative bite before greedily gobbling it. The variety is well-named: there's plenty of sugar, which I reacted to by genetic imperative. Normally I'm a yellow-peach guy because I like their stronger, tangier flavor. This had plenty of acidity, though, allowing it to carry the sweetness. I had another at home, and the experience was just as good, so it wasn't just the "everything tastes better with the winemaker" phenomenon. This really was a nectarine of the gods.

I also sampled a Red Haven peach, which wasn't as exciting, but with 60 varieties they can't all be brilliant. And I played Pooh Bear, poking my finger into a honeycomb Anstey pulled away from the hives he keeps.

Anstey owns 30 head of beef cattle and also keeps three goats that Pine Ridge winery wanted to get rid of. They're cute critters, but they're not dairy goats, and what Anstey really wants is to make goat cheese (which is great with Sauvignon Blanc). So I believe there's a harvest-time goat barbecue in Dollarhide's near future.

With all the stone fruit, I wondered if Anstey gets distracted from the grapes, which are still the ranch's main value-added product.

"I think that keeps me interested in my job," Anstey said. "I've been doing this job for more than 10 years. I'm always looking for a new challenge. By the time we're ready to harvest the grapes, these (stone fruits) are pretty much done."

But if you're at Ad Hoc in late fall, you might see once again a "late harvest" product from Dollarhide Ranch on the dessert menu -- late harvest honey. You won't taste Sauvignon Blanc in it, because bees don't pollinate grapevines, but if you get a hint of Arctic Sweet, the nectarine gods have blessed you.

Friday, July 17, 2009

A lavish attack

Here's the way Staglin Family Vineyard describes its 2006 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon:

The wine opens with an abundant nose of candied cherries and ripe plums complex with notes of cedar and pencil shavings, a whiff of black olives and just the faintest hint of jasmine floating above. A lavish attack on the palate is lead by ripe Satsuma plums and marionberries in an ebullient bath of Maraschino liqueur followed by an uninhibited mid-palate of blackcurrants deepened by notes of leather, loam and rich chocolates that oscillate between milk and dark, girded along the way and through the exit into a lengthy finish by plentiful and luxurious tannins.
Wow. I blogged last week about this study about the language used to describe expensive wines. What a great example. You know that an "ebullient bath of Maraschino liqueur" isn't going to be cheap.

Moreover, if you're on the mailing list and you spend $175 for this bottle of wine, you don't want to be told only that it tastes like cherry and chocolate and it's well-balanced -- even if that description were totally accurate.

I tasted this wine this week and loved it; this was my favorite of a cherry-picked group of '06 Rutherford Cabs. That said, I didn't see any chocolate oscillating. But I gotta say, I love those verbs. I wish I had this description in front of me while drinking the wine. "Hey Wilfred, is your chocolate oscillating?" "No man, I'm still in the ebullient bath."

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Rutherford Dust Society Cabernet tasting

Tom Rinaldi is my hero today, and apparently Giants pitcher Jonathan Sanchez's hero also.

Rinaldi, the winemaker from Provenance Vineyards, made my second-favorite wine at the Rutherford Dust Society tasting on Wednesday. This was a very serious group of wines, including some of the most famous luxury wines in Napa. A group of sommeliers chose 19 wines they thought best represented Rutherford's 2006 vintage.

Why do I love Tom Rinaldi? Because his wine stood out among this rarified group -- and it was both the cheapest and the largest-production wine.

Granted, at $45 the Provenance Cab isn't a weekday burger wine. But 8 of the other 18 wines sell for more than $100. Moreover, Provenance was up against wines of which less than 100 total cases were made, meaning each grape cluster could be lavished with attention, but only the well-connected will ever see it. With 22,000 cases of Provenance available, you don't have to sigh that you'll never taste this exotic nectar.

Rinaldi is a self-effacing guy who was a winemaker at Duckhorn from 1978 to 1999, so he knows how to make larger-production luxury wines. He credited grapegrower Andy Beckstoffer, whose vineyards provided about 2/3 of the grapes in the Provenance Cab. He also mentioned long sorting tables where bad-looking grapes and non-grape material could be plucked out.

But the main data I extracted from Rinaldi was that Sanchez visited Provenance with his father on Tuesday, the day of the All-Star Game, just four days after pitching a no-hitter. According to Rinaldi, Provenance was the only winery stop on Sanchez's Napa visit. I have to give Sanchez credit: In a single week, he discovered control for his slider and a superb value in Napa Cabernet. The San Francisco Giants can really teach a guy how to live.

What's great about the Provenance? It's a satisfying two-level punch of bright fruit up top with a firm tannic backbone. It's complex and seems age-worthy, yet I could have drained a bottle of it this week without difficulty.

I mentioned that it was my 2nd favorite wine. Credit Staglin Family Vineyard for making a wine worthy of the $175 price tag in 2006; their '06 Estate Cab is complex and elegant, with healthy acidity that bodes well for the long term. It's not easy to be impressive in this group, but the Staglin stood out from the first whiff.

Overall, one surprise was the near-absence of monolithic fruit bombs. Napa Cabernet gets caricatured all the time, but at the top level these are wines of elegance and complexity. I don't know that I actually tasted the famous "Rutherford Dust," but these wines were, as a group, more the product of vineyards than of hang time, and more of grapes than oak barrels.

Tasting notes:

Pina Firehouse Vineyard Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($85)
93 cases. Lovely, complex aroma with mostly red fruits and some black licorice. Tannic initially but slightly sweet raspberry fruit comes through on midpalate. Not as complex on palate yet, but give it time. 92

Riboli Family Wine Estates Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($60)
500 cases. Savory, with soft tannins and cherry/red currant fruit. 88

Provenance Vineyards Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($60)
22,000 cases. Lively aroma of cherry, raspberry, horehound, earth, pepper. Two-level punch on palate: bright cherry/raspberry fruit with firm tannic backbone. Enjoyable now, should continue to develop for a few years. 95

Round Pond Estate Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($60)
2900 cases. Very ripe cherry fruit, slightly sweet. For people who like their Cabs unrestrained. 87

Frank Family Vineyards Winston Hill Rutherford Red Wine 2006 ($150)
840 cases. Dense cherry/blackberry fruit with thick tannins and notes of oak. Needs some time. 90

Quintessa Rutherford 2006 ($155)
9400 cases. Bright fruit aroma with plenty of cherry and raspberry. Tannic as hell on the palate, with the fruit captured within. Promising wine, but needs time. Wait a couple years at least. 91

Raymond Vineyards Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($60)
1100 cases. Brooding aroma of oak, dark cherry, chocolate. Thus bright flavors are a surprise: cherry/raspberry fruit, good balance, tannins under control. You could drink it now, but I would wait a couple years. 93

Sullivan Vineyards Estate Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($55)
1500 cases. Unexpected play of raspberry with candied chile. A little sweet, a little spicy, perhaps a throwback to Rutherford Cabs of an earlier era. 88

Flora Springs Hillside Reserve Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($100)
320 cases. Somewhat dull dark fruit aroma doesn't properly presage a wine that combines dark cherry with a distinctive pastrami note -- like Lulu's house-made pastrami at the Ferry Plaza. Also notes of dark chocolate. Moderately tannic. Cured meat character makes me hungry, which is a good thing. 92

Hewitt Vineyard Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($85)
5500 cases. Lively wine with intense cherry flavor that brightens as it goes, along with a little milk chocolate note. An easy wine to love. 93

Peju Reserve Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($105)
1700 cases. Elegant, lissome wine with pretty black and red berries. 92

Slaughterhouse Cellars Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($60)
269 cases. Dense, dark and closed at the moment, with notes of blackberries, oak, black pepper and hints of dried herbs. Tastes balanced, but I would not approach this wine for another 3-5 years. 91

Meander Morisoli Vineyard Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($120)
40 cases. Hedonistic wine, ripe and rich like blackberry pie filling. Super plush tannins. Low-acid, but undeniable appeal. 91

Monticello Vineyards Tietjen Vineyards Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($65)
224 cases. Bright raspberry, firm structure, finishes tannic. Needs time for the tannins to resolve. 92

Sawyer Cellars Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($48)
1600 cases. Good complexity in a wine with a mix of bright red and candied fruit. 91

Sequoia Grove Rutherford Bench Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($65)
1700 cases. Strongly oaky up front and very closed at the moment. Ripe dark cherry comes out on long finish. Wait 4-5 years for this one. 91

Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($115)
9000 cases. Plush, ripe raspberry with a hint of mocha. Gentle on the palate with a long fruity finish. Tremendous density of fruit. 92

Rubicon Estate Rutherford Rubicon 2006 ($145)
Case production quantity not provided (what are you ashamed of?) Tastes like blackberry/vanilla ice cream, with a creamy mouthfeel. New oak dominates at the moment; will be interesting to taste in 10 years. 90

Staglin Family Vineyard Estate Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($175)
2700 cases. Complex and surprisingly mature already, with aromas of dark cherry, orange peel, cigar box and oak. Elegant on the palate with similar flavors; more acidity than expected bodes well for the future. When I first smelled this I thought someone had snuck in a ringer -- an earlier vintage. But if it's already this complex, I wonder what it will be like when it's released in October. 95

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Organic fruit booze for a righteous buzz

Organic booze has, until now, always struck me as pretentious and a little silly.

When you're drinking vodka, you're drinking a spirit so neutral that it could have been made from potatoes, wheat, rice or corn, and you probably couldn't tell the difference. Moreover, if you usually buy organic products for the health benefits, why are you doing drinking vodka?

Now, though, there's a booze where organic ingredient sourcing makes sense: organic fruit liqueurs. I pay a premium for organic fruit for several reasons, but the main one is that I believe organically grown fruit has more flavor. So naturally I'd want that fruit going into a fruit liqueur.

Two of these fruit liqueurs from Los Angeles-based Modern Spirits deliver on that promise. I particularly like the hibiscus liqueur, which reminds me of one of my occasional sweet-liquor vices, Chambord. This tastes a little less sweet than Chambord, with some interesting spice notes and a slightly floral aroma. I am happily drinking this over ice as I write this, and I suspect it'll work well in Cosmo-like red cocktails. The only thing I don't like is the name: "Crism" makes me think of jism, not the sort of thing I like to think about when putting something in my mouth. But who knows, maybe suggestive cocktail name potential is part of the appeal (would you order a "Crimson Crism" or a"Mouthful of Crism"?)

The citrus version is sweeter than Cointreau, Grand Marnier and the like, but that does make it easier for drinking straight or over the rocks. The lemony, yellow-grapefruit citrus notes do seem brighter and closer to real fruit than in the classic French versions -- maybe that's the organic fruit sourcing. It reminds me of a low-alcohol version of limoncello. (All of these are 20% alcohol.) This name, "Citry," isn't bad, a mashup of "city" and "citrus," which implies that this is how urbanites get their Vitamin C.

I don't care for the jasmine liqueur, which is way too sweet.

I also wonder about why there's no one main brand name for the three of them. They're supposed to be called "Fruit Lab organic liqueurs" as a product lineup, but the words "Fruit Lab" are so tiny that you can't see them across a bar. The creators obviously think their weird individual names (Crism, etc.) are better for selling the product. That's strange, because in this company's original lineup, everything has essentially the same name, which seems like a better way of branding something new.

Modern Spirits' founders, the husband and wife team of Melkon Khosrovian and Litty Mathew, are the folks who produce Tru organic vodka and gin. They're working to make their booze sustainable. The glass bottles are made lightweight, reversing the current packaging trend, and that delivers CO2 savings throughout the distribution chain. The labels are made from post-consumer waste paper and printed with soy ink. They also plan to donate 1% of sales to the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation, thereby combining do-goodism with creating new sources of materials, and why not?

These liquors are available now in 40 states at $29 for a 750 ml bottle, which makes them a little cheaper than Chambord and Cointreau, a necessity for cracking the market. I don't know that getting a buzz off this stuff will help save the planet, but you might feel better about the hangover. Perhaps you'll find yourself saying, "Wow, I don't know where I was last night, and I can't get the taste of Crism out of my mouth." At that point you'll be glad it's organic -- and hibiscus.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The wine taster's toothpaste

Brushing teeth and tasting wine generally go together like raspberry jam and minty freshness, which is to say, eccch.

Professional wine tasters always have to put a little thought into when to brush. The best time to taste wine is in the morning, but no wine tastes good with a lingering hint of spearmint.

I like to brush my teeth after a post-lunch coffee, but can't do it if I'm going to taste wine in the afternoon. I'd rather show up for a wine event with coffee breath than unable to appreciate the first wines served.

Recently I discovered a toothpaste that leaves my palate more unaffected than any other I've tried: Desert Essence Citrus Fresh flavor. It's very mildly citrusy, and that's the note that it leaves in your mouth, instead of mint or cinnamon or fennel or ayurvedic herbs (tried 'em all).

Desert Essence makes two other flavors that I also like, a seaweed-mint that reminds me of the movie Green Slime and a cinnamon-cherry one that is the tastiest of the three, but doesn't have the same low-mouthprint effect. For wine tasters, the citrus one is the only one that's special. You can buy them at Whole Foods.

It's funny; rambling on about a wine or food I like is normal behavior, but for some reason it feels weird talking up a toothpaste. A conversation I had at a wine event, where the promoters swore that a certain brand of water was proven to be more neutral to the palate than all others, made me realize that my discovery was worth sharing. So if you taste wine professionally, check it out.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Lying about wine: is it really "bold" and "full-bodied"?

Nobody should be surprised by the NY Times story this week showing the correlation of different adjectives with wine prices.

What the Times missed was how these studies are used.

The story talks about statistical research on Wine Spectator and other reviews, and its conclusions are overly simple:

1) Expensive wines that writers like get a different set of adjectives than cheap wines
2) Expensive wines that writers like get longer reviews

Well, duh! Good expensive Cabernets taste different than good cheap Grenaches. And if you give a wine a really high rating, you have more to say about it. They didn't bother to interview a single wine critic, who could have told them this.

No, what's missing is a discussion of how wines are described by marketers on the back of the bottle and on point-of-sale materials and the like.

Good marketers are smart enough to read these studies and learn how expensive, highly rated wines are described by critics, and to mimic the vocabulary.

Frequently the descriptions used to market wines have no relationship with how they taste. I know one company that calls all of its red wines "bold" or "full-bodied," whether they are or not. Descriptions of wines are sometimes ordered to be rewritten until they have no connection with the actual character of the wine.

Who has enough confidence in their palate to return a wine because it doesn't taste like its description? And even if that's true, who would give you your money back?

Since these studies have been published, look for a raft of wines marketed by the "expensive" words: “elegant,” “intense,” “supple,” “velvety,” “smoky,” “tobacco” and “chocolate."

The last one is a great marketing word. I've heard so many tasting room staffers say, "You get a note of dark chocolate in this wine." Sometimes I actually do; more often, I watch credulous tourists reach for their wallets because they don't trust their own palate.

Moral of the story: When you read a wine description that really appeals to you, think about who wrote it, and why.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

My 15 favorite Mission District foods

Michael Bauer's recent post of his favorite food items from around the Bay Area reinforced for me what a provincial locavore I am.

Sure, sometimes I head over to Oakland or up to St. Helena for a meal. But often I prefer to eat within staggering distance of my little corner of the universe, just up the hill from San Francisco's Mission District.

So what are my favorite items in my foodshed? Here's a list for locals only. I'm not saying drive up from San Mateo to taste any of these. But if you are in the neighborhood and you haven't tried something, what are you waiting for?

Whole rotisserie chicken at Goood Frikin Chicken. It's always large, juicy and healthy, with zaatar-like spices. The hummus and babaganoush, both firm-textured and covered with a dollop of olive oil, are also good enough to make this list. My favorite takeout meal.

Smoked trout sandwich at Atlas Cafe. One of those places where the staff knows they're better than you. But it is a great and healthy sandwich, with fig chutney and lots of arugula.

Arroz con mariscos at Mi Lindo Peru. Generous steaming mound of tiny shellfish and rice, with bits of corn and onion. Love their well-balanced, garden-tasting hot sauce, also good on bread.

Salted licorice ice cream at Humphry Slocombe. They don't make this intense flavor often enough. Also intense: balsamic caramel, peanut butter curry.

Turkey sandwich at Mr. Pickles. I know it's a chain, but this is apparently one that went rogue. Love the pesto-pickles-peppers standard package.

Cappuccino at Ritual. The place is so hip that I wish it didn't have the best coffee in the neighborhood. But Blue Bottle isn't here yet, so it does. So smooth on the palate, you'll wonder why you usually accept bitterness.

Paper masala dosa at Dosa. I admit I like the looks from diners around me when it arrives. (If you don't know why, go there and order one.)

Coffee-rubbed pork shoulder at Range. They're a little embarrassed at the popularity of this dish, as they want you to try other things. When it's on the menu, I confound them and order it.

Monterey squid and white beans at Delfina. Silky and chewy, mild yet scented with the sea. Great harmony in this dish.

Al Pastor taco from El Tonayense taco truck. The one I frequent got 100 from the SF health dept, better than most non-mobile taquerias. Why taco trucks have the most flavor, I don't understand.

Pavo y pavo ahumado torta from Tortas Las Picudos. I love the line of chefs assembling your sandwich. And I love the sandwich, defined by jalapeno and queso fresco, even more.

Mussels with pork at Spork. Decadently rich; you often don't notice the thick hunk of delicious pork until you've removed a couple fat, chewy mussels. It's like a one-bowl 2-course meal.

Cheeseburger and fries at Burger Joint. They sweat the small stuff. Grilled onions feel pricey at 75 cents, but I get them anyway. I like cheddar on my burger.

Gougere from Tartine. Enormous compared to the ones you usually see, but soft and flavorful. I like it for breakfast with one sweet, either a scone or morning bun.

Omelette with black beans, cilantro and cheddar at Boogaloo's. One of the few culinary tips I picked up from British travelers: beans for breakfast. Boogaloo's can stuff 'em in and still deliver an omelette with structural integrity. The cilantro is like bitters in a cocktail, making all elements more interesting.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Soda for men -- bad men

A couple weeks ago, on one of the hottest days of the year, I journeyed with my friend Alder Yarrow (who has a blog you should read) down to San Mateo to get ramen.

While there, Alder ran into a friend who was wearing a shirt that said in Japanese, "I'm a stupid American." (Baka na Amerikajin desu.) I thought he must be wearing it ironically; he was Asian-American and we were someplace where half the people could read the shirt.

Nope. When I said, "I'm a stupid American?" aloud -- question mark mine, not the shirt's -- he said, "It's Paul Frank." As if that explained it.

Let me put it to you this way -- if a Japanese person walked up to you wearing a shirt reading, in English, "I'm a stupid Japanese," wouldn't you think, "Yeah you are"? Not, "Wow, you're wearing Paul Frank."

But I do have to hand it to Paul Frank. The guy can sell stupid Americans t-shirts that label them as such for $25, and make them so happy they'll walk around touting his brand.

Not knowing Alder's friend, and not wanting to agree too openly with his t-shirt, I fumbled for my camera -- but I hadn't brought it. Bad Blake! Here I had finally seen a shirt to rival some of the great Japlish t-shirts I used to see in Tokyo, and no way of recording the moment.

Thus the Bad Man Soda was a consolation prize. I scored it at the Nijiya market in the same shopping center as Santa Ramen (where the tonkotsu, or pork broth, ramen is best).

The big character at the top of the bottle -- the one that looks like a square head running -- means "Man" (you can read it as "otoko"). It definitely catches your eye when you're cruising the Japanese drinks aisle, especially when you're a manly man like yours truly.

The text below ("choi waru tsuyo soda") explains, in a slangy pun, that this is a slightly bad, strong soda for that kind of man.

Recognizing myself, I immediately purchased it, used my powerful wrists to open the screwcap and took a slightly bad, strong belt. It's club soda, well-marketed, and I feel like a Tarantino star because when I drink, I drink bad, brother. No baka na Amerikajin soda here. And you can tell Paul Frank I said, "Brrrrrrrp!" In a menacing way.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

How important is direct shipping, really?

Like most wine and freedom lovers, I strongly support direct shipping of wine, especially because the main opposition is an unholy coalition of monopolistic-minded distributors and religious fanatics.

But in the wake of the federal Court of Appeals decision upholding New York's ban on direct shipping, I'm wondering how much difference it really makes.

I had a conversation with Leslie Rudd on Sunday about direct shipping. Rudd is precisely the kind of winery that should benefit: it's small, and it makes wines that are expensive enough for the shipping costs to not seem too onerous.

But Rudd sells only a small percentage of his wines directly, and doesn't think it will ever amount to more than 5%. Even for a $125 Cabernet, adding $8 or more per bottle (shipping costs on a case usually start at about $100) is a turnoff for most people. Moreover, he believes most people prefer to buy wine from a trusted local merchant.

One of the main reasons I support direct shipping is I just don't like monopolies. If a distributor like Southern Wine & Spirits has total control of its market, it can dictate what you drink. Direct shipping allows alternatives.

That said, Rudd is right that direct shipping is not true competition for the three-tier system. You have to buy in quantity. You have to worry about shipping wine in the heat of summer, and being home for the UPS guy. It's great for the wine club member who wants to maintain an emotional connection to a winery he has visited. But it's not an effective way to put wine on the dinner table daily. And it's not going to support the business model of any but the tiniest wineries. We're probably going to see some mid-sized wineries go bankrupt in the next year, and direct shipping won't save them.

New Yorkers need to rise up and complain to their legislators that a ban on direct shipping is wrong, and they want it overturned. However, New York's legislature may be the only one in America that's more messed up right now than California's. This just isn't going to be the highest priority.

We could wring our hands and curse the distributors and evangelists. At some level, I am. But I also don't think it's the end of the world. Admittedly, from my perch in California where I can get pretty much any wine in the world delivered to my doorstep, that's an easy position to take. You want your boutique mail-order wine, New Yorkers? You know what they say in your town about the squeaky wheel.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The B-52s rock Wente Vineyards

Wente Vineyards seems to have slipped below awareness. That's why they need "Planet Claire."

Wente makes 300,000 cases a year and is the flagship winery for Livermore Valley. The Wentes have been making wine in Livermore since 1883. In 1916, the Wentes planted the first Chardonnay in California. The winery is still family-run, and they were farming sustainably before it was cool.

But they haven't gotten much attention in about 20 years. The wines were well respected in the '80s, but seemed to take a dip in quality in the '90s.

And being in Livermore doesn't help -- though it's a mystery as to why the region's reputation is so weak. The area has always had great potential for terroir; a Livermore Valley wine won a Grand Prix at the 1889 Paris International Exposition. Temperature studies show that Livermore Valley has very similar climate to Napa Valley. And well-made wines from Livermore have an appealing minerality, perhaps the result of the rocky soils.

I'm not going to say Livermore wines are as good as wines from Napa and Sonoma -- they're not. But Livermore as terroir is at least as good as, say, Paso Robles, which has a growing reputation, while Livermore is such a downer to retailers that the Wine Group, which owns the other Livermore big gun, Concannon Vineyard, sometimes hides their Livermore wines under the appellation "Central Coast."

If anyone can put Livermore back on the wine lovers' map, it's the Wentes. They're always working on drawing people east from San Francisco -- they have a nice restaurant, a golf course, and in summer they put on outdoor concerts. They're realists, knowing that at present they can't draw people from outside the area with the wines alone.

I went out to Livermore on Thursday to see the B-52s, another group that was more famous in the '80s. There are few nicer venues in this area than Wente Vineyards; the stage is outside, immediately next to the restaurant, with great views of the surrounding copper-colored hills at sunset.

While there, I checked in on the wines the Wentes are making these days. I confess that the four wines I tried there were more Wente wines than I'd had since doing a major Livermore story in 2004. And I'll also confess that in 2004, I tasted their whole lineup and didn't find a single wine I wanted to recommend.

Since then, Wente has changed its focus under fifth-generation winemaker Karl Wente, who's barely 30 years old. Karl groomed himself to take over the winemaking, with degrees from Stanford and UC Davis and hands-on experience at Peter Michael Winery.

Karl Wente's pet project is the Nth Degree, a series of 300-case bottlings with no expense spared. The first Wente wines to turn my head during their dark ages were the first releases of Nth Degree wines -- in particular, that first Nth Degree Chardonnay (I believe a 2004 vintage) was excellent, with the minerality that Livermore can do and the right amount of French oak.

This weekend I really enjoyed the Wente Nth Degree Livermore Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 -- a well-balanced wine, with flavors of black cherry, cola and black licorice, good acidity and well-managed tannins. This is a sophisticated Cab and possibly the best wine I've had with the Wente label -- I'd give it a 91.

Any big winery can make a good 300-case wine, though, which is why I was more impressed with the Wente Louis Mel Livermore Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2008 ($12). It's excellent value: crisp, with lime and nectarine flavors and some minerality. Like all the Wente wines, it's a blend, not a single-vineyard wine, but it does show some regional terroir, which you rarely get anymore in California for $12.

As for the B-52s, they're not quite as revitalized as the Wentes; the spirit is willing, but the flesh (and the voice) isn't what it once was. That said, everybody was dancing, even in the expensive seats; this was much more fun than watching a singer-songwriter collect a paycheck. On the last three songs (Love Shack, Planet Claire and Rock Lobster), the band cut loose, reminding me of a veteran pitcher saving his best fastball for the last batter. While they're not aging as gracefully as a more serious act might, I'll be happy if, when the time comes, the B-52s play my assisted-care living facility.

Overall, I have to give the Wente concert experience a thumbs-up, and based on my brief tasting of the wines, I'm really looking forward to seeing where Karl and his sister Christine -- who has taken over sales and marketing -- take the winery. If Livermore is to make a comeback, the region needs the Wentes to lead it.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Sarah Palin campaign slogans

Now that Sarah Palin is free from responsibility, as a person who has also seen Russia and lived in a gas-producing state, I'd like to help her give this country back to the people who don't need to study English to know that 1 plus 1 equals 2. So I'm applying to work on the Palin 2012 campaign.

Here are some of my slogans that will help Sarah get her family in the Oval Office where they can see about changing its shape. Isn't 200 years of oval long enough?

Palin 2012: We gave smart people a chance. Now it's our turn.

Palin 2012: "Only dead fish go with the flow."

I want a woman in the White House in the worst way possible. Vote Palin 2012.

Palin for President in 2012, 2013 and most of 2014

Vote for a woman who protects her kids from comedians. Palin 2012

Hate the economy? Vote Palin 2012 and make it go away

In Alaska, health care is a needle and thread. Vote Palin 2012

Abstinence first! But if that fails, vote Palin 2012

Hawaii community college dropouts for Palin 2012. One of us!

Idaho community college dropouts for Palin 2012. One of us!

Alaska community college dropouts for Palin 2012. One of us!

Idaho journalism degree holders for Palin 2012. We don't let our higher learning affect our core values!

Palin 2012: 3rd place in Miss Alaska, 1st place in my heart

Palin 2012: Who you callin' trailer trash? I've got the nuclear football!

Palin 2012: Put the "white" back in White House

(I better trademark that one)

Friday, July 3, 2009

Denshu Hyakuyonju Junmai Daiginjo: Please enjoy it in your mouth

One of the main characteristics of Japanese is its vagueness. Language is culture, and Japanese helps people get along in crowded, resource-poor cities by preventing hard feelings in conversation.

Here's a good example of how this works: In a business meeting, everyone sits around the table vaguely feeling out each others' position until eventually everyone realizes what they're expected to say. Thus the first and only vote is almost always unanimous.

Here's a more frustrating example: I think this sake is named "140" (hyakuyonju) because it's the 140th attempt at crossing Aomori's native Hanafubuki rice with the more famous Yamada Nishiki, which doesn't usually grow so far north.

However, I can't confirm that; the Japanese describing it is just too vague. All I know is that in the crossing experiments, somehow this rice got the number "140." Maybe that's the number of wins Aomori native Daisuke Matsuzaka expects to pile up in Boston. Maybe it's just a mellifluous number.

As a journalist, I hate that vagueness -- it makes reporting anything from Japan a challenge, as you get notebooks full of quotes that, translated, essentially mean, "Maybe so." I can't help but wonder, as I struggled to get information on this product, how much Japanese exports would benefit from a trade export organization with English skills.

Oh wait -- there is one. I went to JETRO, the Japan External Trade Organization, where I learned the following about Aomori rice:

"The value that is delicious by the security that only the person who ate understands.
Please enjoy it in your mouth."

OK, at least we know where to put it. Let me tell you what I do know.

Aomori prefecture is the snowiest in Japan -- even more so than Hokkaido. Aomori is at the very tip of Honshu, and even in summer it's foggy and windy.

The prefecture is 66% covered by forest, and the rest mostly by farmland, such that a visiting English teacher posted somewhere on the web, "There's nothing but rice paddies here."

Aomori is fairly poor and has been losing population since it peaked in 1983, because young people don't want to pursue the number one industry -- agriculture. When they get to Tokyo, they have to relearn how to speak, because Aomori is famous in Japan for its unfashionable rural dialect. They also have to learn to have fun, because all there is to do in Aomori at night is carve artwork in the rice paddies -- which they've gotten quite good at.

Aomori grows 75% of the garlic in Japan and 52% of the apples. It also grows more yam and burdock root than any other prefecture. But we didn't come here to talk about garlic or burdock root (though we can talk about Calvados if you like).

Nowadays we believe that the best wines come from marginal growing areas -- areas that are too cold to guarantee a crop every year. Could it be true for sake as well? There are so many factors in creating great sake that it's hard to tease out the influence of cool climate.

But Aomori prefecture, with only 1.5 million people, has 45 sake producers. Nishida, maker of this sake, likes the area so much that it uses the Denshu brand just for junmais, and has a second brewery in Aomori where it makes its more famous brand Kikuizumi. And it's not the only famous name from Aomori, because Momokawa, which has an outpost in Oregon, has its home base there.

Nishida's Denshu Junmai is one of the most popular junmai sakes in Japan, regularly making local lists of top 10 junmais. The 140 is a more recent product, created in 2003.

Nishida claims over and over that all their Denshu sakes are "handmade." Here we get back to vagueness -- what does that mean? The rice can't possibly be polished by hand (down to 40%, hence daiginjo) in this day and age. But what the heck, it's good sake. When it comes my turn, I might prepare to possibly express an opinion in the direction of approval.

Tasting notes: Aromas of fresh cream, peach, white chocolate and orange pith. There's plenty of fresh fruit (peach and apricot) up front. You taste a jolt of alcohol (it's a hefty 17.0%) in your first sip, but then it turns quite smooth, with a long creamy finish. It's not the most complex daiginjo ever, but it's rich and smooth and crowd-pleasing. I'd give it a 92.

Food pairing: In Aomori they would drink this with seafood stew, but I think it's fine with miso-glazed cod or other dishes where the creaminess would match the food's texture.

In any case, remember to follow the official instructions, and please enjoy it in your mouth.

(This post first appeared on