Sunday, November 29, 2009

Blind tasting -- it's not just for wine

This week I've been having a discussion with a friend on Facebook who claims that all red wines taste the same. He's across the country from me, so I had to send him blind-tasting instructions by email, and it occurred to me that the concept is worth sharing.

I love blind tasting, and not just with wine. Whether it's bottled water, sea salt, olive oil, coffee -- if there are three different items to compare, I want to get my mouth involved.

Some of the joy comes from discovering cheaper items that are just as good or better than more expensive items. But I just like comparing. This is why the Coke vs. Pepsi taste-off was so popular in the 1980s: it was the only blind taste test I can remember being held for the general public in shopping malls. It wasn't the soft drinks that were fun -- it was the process.

So here's a copy of my email to my friend about how to conduct a blind taste test (I suggested buying two Syrahs, one from warm Paso Robles and one from cooler Santa Barbara County, neither cheaper than $10 or more expensive than $25). If you haven't done this yourself, try it with any product you like: soda, chocolate bars, slices of apple, whatever. Blind tasting really is fun.

Here's how I'd do it. Have another person there. Have her pour one glass of each.
Smell first; your nose is more acute than your tongue. Stick your nose in the glass and take a big sniff. Take several. Take notes on the aromas.
Don't worry about being technically accurate. Concentrate first on the smell of the fruit -- is it cherry? Blackberry? Raspberry? Currant? Then try to put a label on other aromas: Wood? Raw meat? Pepper? Play doh? Iodine? Don't worry about whether it sounds good or not, try to get something down that describes it to yourself.
Then, taste one. Pros swish it in their mouth with a little air and spit it out, but you don't have to do that. But don't gulp, you need to stay sober until you're done.
Again, write down your impressions -- this is key. The main reason people don't remember what wine tastes like is they don't take notes, then they get wasted.
Then do the same with the other one.
See if you can guess which is which. If you do get one from a cool climate and one from a hot, the cool-climate Syrah should be peppery and possibly even gamy. The hot-climate Syrah should have richer fruit and more alcohol.
If you have multiple people, you can have several people do the experiment at once -- this is so much fun, you can make a party out of it. One person has to sacrifice themselves as the person who knows which is which.
Mainly, you're just forcing yourself to pay attention to small differences that you normally don't. If you can tell the difference between lagers, Syrahs should have differences that are even more extreme.
I hope you enjoy this. I do this exact sort of thing several times a week, every week, and not just with wine. I love for my wife to give me two similar items to blind-taste; pastured eggs from different farms (very low recognition rate), different brands of soy sauce, you name it.
On some products, it really doesn't make a difference what you buy. I can't tell one regular, non-seasoned sea salt from another. We have two different kinds of water filter and I can't distinguish the effects.
But wine always tastes different. When I like the cheaper one better, I'm happy, but this almost never happens unless the cheaper one costs at least $10, hence my lower limit.
Enjoy, let me know how it goes.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

U.S. conservatives think pasta is "ethnic"

Everybody loves Italian food, but in this land of two Americas, there's a huge gulf in how we perceive it.

If you're liberal, you probably see pasta, pizza, focaccia and pesto as part of your everyday arsenal of food choices.

But if you're conservative, eating angel hair pasta with pesto is a walk on the wild side -- almost like admitting you once had a gay fantasy.

It took a summer-long poll from to explain something about San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood I had never understood.

The poll, described here, correlated people's political beliefs with the foods they like. Some of the results are intuitive: Is anyone surprised that liberals like veggies on their pizza while conservatives want meat? (I like anchovies, which fits as I discovered on that I really should be a libertarian.)

Asked their favorite "cuisine," liberals named Chinese, Japanese and Thai. Conservatives said Italian.

Suddenly I understood why in North Beach vendors sell t-shirts with giant letters proclaiming that the wearer has eaten Italian food, making various puns about the experience (i.e., "Don't kiss me, I just ate Italian food"). For years, I was bewildered by these (as I was by most North Beach restaurants). Who takes a vacation to San Francisco to eat indifferently prepared spaghetti swimming in a bowl of red sauce, then buys a tote bag to brag about it back home? Don't they sell pizza in Peoria?

Now I understand. To liberals, Italian food is so commonplace that it's not even a separate cuisine anymore. But for people who are truly conservative -- Billy Graham followers, not Mitt Romney economic Republicans or Sarah Palin dummies -- anything beyond meat and potatoes really is exotic.

This will not be news to those of you with conservative family members. You might want to watch their diet for them: turns out 63% of conservatives eat fast food a few times a week, and 30% eat fresh fruit less than once a week.

It got me to wondering about the way conservatives think about food. I confess that while I have Republican and Democrat friends, I have maintained no friendships with true conservatives; they live in a different world from me. So I have to look at the poll for guidance.

Here's a theory, and it is just that. True conservatives believe we should deny the urges of the body, particularly urges to pursue pleasure. Conservatives believe strongly in shame, and think its absence is what's wrong with this country.

Spending too much time, effort or money on food would be shameful. Hence the popularity of convenience foods.

But it goes deeper than that. To make a dish like green curry, with its complex blend of flavors, is creating temptation. Meat loaf, on the other hand, is fulfilling. It does the job food is required to do, without excessive ornamentation that could arouse impure thoughts of greed and gluttony.

This would explain another philosophical question I've always had: why do people look so much larger at conservative events than liberal events, given that conservatives are aware that gluttony is a deadly sin? It's not gluttony, it's purely diet -- and the diet stems from attempting to avoid foods that would stimulate gluttony.

What makes this interesting is that while liberals are a messy group who never agree on anything (including that statement), true conservatives tend to present a very united front.

That means that smarter minds than mine have already considered these philosophical questions, while in the employ of Kraft and ConAgra and McDonald's. From now on, I'm going to look at food advertisements differently, thanks to this poll. There's a natural tension -- ad agency people are definitely not social conservatives (remember, I'm not talking about Republican vs. Democrat here), but if they do the best for their client, they'll reach out to the social conservatives who buy macaroni and cheese in a box, or eat Big Macs four times a week.

Deep thoughts for a Thanksgiving weekend. I'll conclude by saying, wow, Americans of all belief sets have lousy taste in cheese. Conservatives like Velveeta -- that's not even cheese -- or Colby, which I believe is half cheese, half orange wax. Liberals aren't any better: brie? That's such a cliche, it's like naming as your favorite wine the one you were served on an airplane last week. The cheese industry has a lot of work to do in this country on both sides of the great divide.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Consistent bargains from McManis Family Vineyards

I'm a city boy, but I like farmers. Give me the choice between a product made by a multinational or something of the same quality and price made by people who work the land themselves, and I'll always pick the latter.

That's why I have an affection for McManis Family Vineyards. They're fourth-generation family farmers in Ripon, in California's Central Valley. And they compete in the toughest of all price categories -- the $10 price range.

Wander into a big wine store and take a close look at what's available around $10. Most come from big corporations, which have the economy of scale to cut costs on every expense -- glass, labels, shipping, you name it.

If you see a winery you haven't heard of, pick up the bottle and look closely at the back label. Odds are good that it will be produced and bottled by somebody other than the brand on the front. This means it's likely a private label wine, possibly made specifically for the store you're at. There's nothing wrong with such a product, but it's purely a commodity.

As far as I know, there's no family named High Peak or Leafy Ridge or any of the other generic topographical names that private label makers prefer. But there are McManises (proprietors Ron and Jamie are in the photo with their kids Justin and Tanya), and if you buy their wine you're supporting their family.

That's all well and good, but who cares if the wines don't deliver? Fortunately, they usually do.

Don't misunderstand -- these are budget wines made in the American style. This winery uses oak chips, alcohol reduction and all the other technical tricks of the budget-wine trade, and I give them huge credit for being up front about it while big companies hide their hands. (Mini rant: There are very few wines for $10 that are not manipulated products. If you're one of these people who talks about "natural" and "terroir" and all of that, you need to support wineries in their back-to-the-land efforts by paying more for your daily wine.)

(Updated thanks to comments from Ron & Jamie, below): With the recent purchases of several vineyards in Lodi, the McManises farm 65% of their grapes themselves. Their original ranch, planted to Chardonnay, even has its own AVA: River Junction. They're still buying a third of their fruit, putting them in competition with the Gallos and Constellation and the rest of the Top 30 US wine companies for both product and shelf space.

This year, the standout is the Merlot. Merlot is still so beaten down by "Sideways" that the grapes are super cheap on the bulk market; some even went unharvested last year because they couldn't sell for what it would cost to pick them. I used to hate budget Merlots, which always came from grapes grown in inappropriate spots. (updated) The McManises must have found a cool hillside in the Central Valley planted with these grapes, because I thought the wine had Napa or Sonoma fruit in it.

I usually like the McManis Family reds much better than the whites, and this year is no exception. But they always produce a few wines of great value, and they're real farmers, which to me has value on its own. If you need affordable wines for Thanksgiving, look no further.

Tasting notes:

McManis Family Vineyards California Petite Sirah 2008 ($11)
Black like teeth-staining ink, this wine has plenty of ripe blackberry and black plum with an underlying light note of peach. It's potent but not hot (14.5% alcohol), with decent acidity. It's a big wine with balance, and superb value. 89

McManis Family Vineyards California Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 ($11)
An standard-variety red wine, with flavors of ripe blackberry and vanilla, but solid crowd-pleaser for this price range. Good wine for Christmas parties. 88

McManis Family Vineyards California Zinfandel 2008 ($11)
Very ripe and sweet blackberry flavors with notes of earth and coffee in the aroma and a bit of vanilla on the finish. Good value in this price range. 87

McManis Family Vineyards California Syrah 2008
Most of the McManis lineup tends toward the internationalized; not this one. This is a feral wine, with an aroma so meaty it's almost like hamburger. Sweet blackberry on the palate, though with a strong meaty note and a little vanilla. Pretty masculine stuff, although honestly too much so for me. 86

McManis Family Vineyards River Junction Chardonnay 2008 ($11)
Like drinking sweet butter. Many people like this; you know who you are. NR

McManis Family Vineyards California Viognier 2008 ($11)
Bright apple flavor but very sweet; almost an Apple Jacks flavor. Simple, and probably a pleaser of crowds I don't belong to. NR

McManis Family Vineyards California Pinot Noir 2008 ($11)
Good value for Pinot Noir, this has a deep cherry flavor and medium body, though the vanilla is a bit strong. Enough acidity to keep it food-friendly. I've had a lot worse Pinots than this for three times more money. 88

McManis Family Vineyards California Merlot 2008 ($11)
What more can you ask for at $11 -- it's varietally correct and delicious, with flavors of cherry and coffee and notes of tobacco and smoke. Easy to drink, but with some complexity, this is one of the best domestic red wines in this price range I've tasted this year. 90

Sunday, November 22, 2009

What's in your vodka? Who knows?

Earlier this week I found myself at a charity event seated at a table sponsored by a major vodka brand I won't name. Let's call it Holey.

The other 8 people at the table all worked for this brand, selling and marketing it. I tried to strike up friendly conversation about the brand's new high-end vodka.

"How is this vodka different from your regular vodka?" I asked.

"It's more expensive," a marketer said.

"OK, but is it made different?"

"We made it to be the most expensive vodka on the market."

"OK, how did you do that? What's it made of?"

"This vodka is made in Russia."

Let me interrupt to point out that these people -- 8 of them -- all spoke perfectly good English, were well-dressed and are apparently well-paid. Moreover, they knew I am a wine and spirits writer, and they were there to represent the brand.

"Is it made from wheat?" I asked.

"It doesn't matter what it's made of. All that matters is the filtering."

"OK, is there some special filtering process?"

"It's the best, that's all that matters. We created this to be the top of the vodka market."

And that's that. I tried a few other avenues of inquiry, but nobody at the table knew a damn thing about this expensive vodka -- except that it's expensive.

I overheard some of their strategies. One guy was going to use his relationship with a bar to demand that it be included in featured cocktails. Another was going to chat up a DJ friend to get her to scream about it between songs. One guy left the dinner before dessert to visit three bars, planning to order it and pester any bartenders who didn't have it prominently displayed.

I told this story the next day to a wine/spirits store owner from Los Angeles. He stopped me about one minute in and said, "You don't have to say another word. I talk to these guys every week. I know what they're like."

So there you have it, vodka fans. What are you getting when you buy the most expensive vodka at your local bar? Nobody knows -- not even its salespeople.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Michelle Locke: The wine world will miss you more than it knows

I just learned from Gawker that Michelle Locke, who has been at Associated Press for 24 years, was one of the casualties in Associated Press' nationwide layoffs yesterday.

This is a bad loss for the wine world. Locke was not on the top of many people's list of important wine writers, but she's the one who got news about wine into papers of all sizes around the country and the world.

I don't know Locke; we have never met. But I admire her work.

Most mainstream, multi-subject news reporters badly botch the subject of wine. They either giggle over the idea that they're drinking on duty, or put on their MADD cap and interview a gaggle of neo-Prohibitionists. They usually refuse to make any sensory value judgment themselves, often unwittingly turning into PR touts because they let the winery's marketing director describe how the wine tastes.

Locke didn't made those mistakes. She understood the business of wine, which was the main focus of her stories on it. But she also obviously understood wine. She didn't make value judgments -- that's not the AP way -- but she didn't allow her stories to become PR either. Locke wrote wine stories for papers without experts in the subject, but sometimes they were informative enough to run in papers with full-time wine writers.

One could argue that this means more openings for freelance wine writers, as even large newspapers will not easily be able to find stories about wine without paying extra for them.

Instead, I think newspapers will simply run less coverage of wine. That's not a good thing for anyone in the industry.

Good luck to you, Michelle. And thanks for the years of good work.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Beer Wars, wine and politics

Beer rules wine -- not in taste, but in distribution and regulation.

The documentary "Beer Wars" got me to thinking about this. It's not a great movie: director Anat Baron is allergic to alcohol and thinks she knows craft beer because she was general manager of Mike's Hard Lemonade (only in this film are those two italicized phrases used in the same sentence.) This is why she wastes lots of screen time on a small brewer trying to sell caffeinated beer, and doesn't understand why the audience for that product would be satisfied with a corporate version for half the price.

That said, seeing the scale of corporate domination of beer is shocking, and while wine is only mentioned in the film as beer's "rival," an unspoken truth is that politically, wine is beer's bitch.

Anheuser-Busch InBev controls more than half of the US beer market. MillerCoors controls about 30 percent. The US actually has more breweries -- over 1,400 -- than any other country. But they're fighting for a tiny share of the market, and it's difficult to find real microbrews (not corporate lookalikes like MillerCoors' Blue Moon or Anheuser-Busch InBev's Wild Hop) in most US stores.

Baron's voice is grating but her visual style is excellent, with snappy cuts among 50-year-old beer ads, amusing animated parts, and well-shot interviews. She lingers on shots of shelf space, with Anheuser-Busch InBev products stacked floor-to-ceiling. Do we really need Bud Light in 24 packs, 12 packs, 6 packs, mini cans, maxi cans, etc.? Of course not, but the strategy pushes competitors right off the shelves.

This strategy has implications for wine as well, and not just the open competition for young American throats.

Anheuser-Busch InBev is so powerful that in most states it has its own distributors who carry no other product. Stores have to kowtow to them, and beer gets more floor space than it might deserve, but that's not the only impact.

The really interesting part of "Beer Wars" for a wine drinker is political. Wine drinkers are used to viewing the three-tier distribution system (producers can't sell directly to stores, they have to sell through a distributor) through our own lens. But it's not wine that drives the unholy coalition of distributors and the religious right that keeps most Americans from being able to order wine from the Internet -- it's beer.

Almost every member of Congress, and many local politicians as well, get contributions from beer distributors who are seeking to preserve their legal non-competitive, easy money. Baron reports on the three-tier system, but she doesn't understand the implications because nobody would order Mike's Hard Lemonade from Amazon even if it were possible. Wine is another story -- wouldn't people in Michigan like to order whatever Napa Valley Cabernet they want? Of course they would.

My favorite scene from the film comes when Baron tracks down one Oregon congressman who took no contribution in his previous election. She asks him why not, and he says, "They didn't offer." Bingo, he got beer-distributor cash for the next election.

The upshot is, wine lovers trying to get state laws changed don't just run into opposition from the local wine and spirits distributor, powerful forces in their own right. They're also up against Anheuser-Busch InBev, which likes the system just fine the way it is, and its protection flank of paid-for politicians. A company that spends billions on advertising and promotion always has extra cash for local officials considering any change in the status quo.

Wine has no corporations anywhere near that powerful; it takes the top three combined to equal Anheuser-Busch InBev's market share.

Gallo holds about 21 percent of the US market. The Wine Group is up to 18 percent and Constellation is down to 15 percent after selling the Almaden, Inglenook and Paul Masson brands to the Wine Group. Moreover, the top 10 companies hold 76% of the US wine market, less than just the top two beer companies.

Unlike with beer, there's still room in the US wine market for small wineries to compete, usually by focusing their attention on just a few states. Actually changing the rules of the game to make nationwide competition possible isn't going to happen, though -- not while practically every successful politician in the country is getting a bit of the proceeds from the unstoppable sales of Bud Light.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

10 guidelines for Thanksgiving wines

Every food magazine has to do a Wines with Thanksgiving piece this time of year, which means every wine writer has written one. I've done a few, trying each time to get some clever new angle, because that's the way to stand out in the print world.

Here, though, I'm writing for free, not trying to sell some editor, so I can just give you the straight dope. Here are 10 guidelines for enjoying wines with Thanksgiving, and they don't change much from year to year -- just like Thanksgiving dinner itself.

1) Thanksgiving is not a great meal for a superstar wine
When I have a really special wine, I want it to be the star of the meal. This is not going to happen on Thanksgiving. Moreover, if there are more than 6 wine drinkers, everybody will get less than one full glass to appreciate the superstar wine. That's fine for tasting, but Thanksgiving is not about sampling -- it's about consuming and enjoying.

2) Thanksgiving is not for dumping bad wines
I have disposed of many wines I don't want at pre-Christmas parties, because people will fill up their glass with anything. At Thanksgiving, your family and friends are going to sit down and drink that wine right in front of you. I don't want to spend $75 on a Thanksgiving wine, but I don't want to be embarrassed either. If you're bringing wine, consider spending $15 to $25 a bottle.

3) There are too many foods on the table to find one perfect wine
You want a great wine with turkey? I can find you one. Stuffing? Sure. But a great wine with turkey, stuffing, corn on the cob, sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce? Forget it. There is no one perfect choice, so don't obsess over finding it.

4) Whites, bubbles and pinks go with more Thanksgiving foods than reds
There's only one dish on most Thanksgiving tables that goes well with red wine: Mashed potatoes. Light-bodied red wine is also good with turkey and gravy, but it's not usually the best choice. If you really want to match the food, lean most heavily toward whites, bubbles and pinks.

5) People will drink red wine despite point 4
People who like red wine, like red wine. I'm not going to tell them not to. I try to bring lighter-bodied, lower-alcohol reds that will go a little better with the food. But some people want to drink Zinfandel for philosophical reasons (being thankful that Americans discovered this grape, almost extinct in its homeland of Croatia), and I'm not going to make them drink Chenin Blanc instead.
I had a commenter on another post say that he always opens aged Bordeaux on Thanksgiving because it's a special occasion. I want to come to his house -- if you open it, I'll surely drink it. That said, I would push my plate of slightly sweet food out of the way and enjoy a complex, elegant, special wine like that on its own.

6) If you put food on the sideboard, put the wine there too
This is how I serve wine at Thanksgiving: I open a dozen or more bottles of all different kinds of wines and let people pour for themselves. I encourage people to try more than one, and to be frank about likes and dislikes. My friends who aren't in the wine world are often excited to have this many choices, and the odds are good that you can please everyone this way. Very few people have formal dinner service at Thanksgiving. Why shouldn't your wine be served buffet-style as well?

7) Bubbly is a better aperitif than Jack Daniel's
People are going to drink and nibble before the meal. Why not make it festive, by chilling a few bottles of bubbly? I love greeting people with a glass of bubbly; there's no better way to say "welcome." And you might find family tension is eased when your uncles don't get into the whiskey until well after dinner.
You don't need Champagne for this: Schramsberg, Argyle, Iron Horse and Gruet all make excellent domestic bubbly.

8) Here's a short list of wines I really like at Thanksgiving
This is by no means comprehensive. I like to drink American wines at Thanksgiving -- it is our holiday. So I like New York Riesling, Oregon Pinot Gris, Clarksburg Chenin Blanc, California Sauvignon Blanc, Anderson Valley Gewurztraminer. My favorite American roses are usually made from Pinot Noir. For American red, it's almost always Pinot Noir (California or Oregon), though I also like Barbera.
I could tell you about all the foreign wines that go well with Thanksgiving, but you can read that elsewhere. Generally, it's lighter stuff, Old World style.
But consider buying American on this one day of the year. The grapegrowers will be thankful.

9) Here's a short list of wines I don't think go well with Thanksgiving dinner
People can and will drink what they want. That said, I personally save heavier, oakier wines for meals that aren't as problematic. I never have Cabernet with Thanksgiving, and rarely Merlot. I don't like Syrah much at this meal.
Everything else is in a gray area. Take Chardonnay -- it's good with turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing, but problematic with some of the sweeter and more vegetal side dishes. I usually bring it -- it's still America's most popular varietal, so I'm sure to please someone. If I'm in the mood or it's really yummy I drink it myself.

10) This is a great meal for dessert wines
Dessert can last hours at Thanksgiving. I like to bring a couple dessert wines to prolong the dining experience. Don't worry at all about what kind of dessert wine, because it's not going to be paired with anything specific. Just get something a wine shop you trust says is good -- which is good buying advice for the other 364 days of the year as well.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Beaujolais Nouveau: 2009 is a very good year

I'm not a fan of Beaujolais Nouveau. It's silly to see the world go nuts over an overpriced, overhyped barrel sample.

Nonetheless I have tried it almost every year for the last decade, frankly to confirm my prejudice against it as much as anything.

The importers of Georges Duboeuf don't pay close attention to which American wine writers like Beaujolais Nouveau. So they keep asking if I want samples, and I say yes every year, even though I've never written a single nice thing about it.

Until now. This year is an excellent year for Beaujolais Nouveau.

The reason is weather -- it was a warm, dry summer in most of France. Burgundy and Bordeaux vintners are both delighted over their vintage. Most people don't realize this, but Beaujolais is actually part of the Burgundy wine region, so it's no surprise Beaujolais had an excellent year.

The warmth translates into Beaujolais Nouveau that is a little riper than most years, and thus friendlier to American palates. I usually think Beaujolais Nouveau tastes like underripe, slightly sour plum juice. Not this year.

I think you can project from the surprisingly good Duboeuf wines to the entire spectrum of Beaujolais Nouveau producers. Duboeuf, the biggest name, buys the most grapes and thus actually has the least control over the final product. If its basic level Beaujolais Nouveau is this good, it really is a great year for the stuff. Duboeuf's Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau is really worth the extra $1; at $11, it's fantastic value, a good wine where normally I expect a gimmick.

I feel grudging saying this, because it's a big part of the US marketing campaign, but these really are great wines for Thanksgiving dinner. They're light-bodied, low in tannins and refreshing, and won't conflict badly with the menage of flavors on your plate. And philosophically, they're this year's harvest, so they're something to be thankful for.

Don't overpay, don't overrate, and don't overexpect. All of that said, I nearly finished an entire bottle of the Duboeuf Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau last night, and nothing I can write speaks as eloquently of my opinion as a lot of empty glasses.

Tasting notes

Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau 2009 ($10)

A fine year for this simple wine: crushed red plum flavors, a few tannins for textural interest. Simple but pleasant, it would go well with just about any foods, including turkey and all that other stuff. 87

Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau 2009 ($11)

Surprisingly sophisticated for a nouveau, this is an elegant baby wine with crushed red plum flavor, notes of licorice and violet, and very mild tannins. I won't claim to be an expert on the genre, but this is the best Beaujolais Nouveau I've ever had; the score is a reflection of that, and arguably could be higher for that reason. 90

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Dear FTC: I take freebies

I submitted the following op-ed to my former employer, The San Francisco Chronicle. They refused to run it.

By W. Blake Gray

I'm a blogger, and I take freebies.

The Federal Trade Commission considers that practice so wicked that it created a new rule. Soon, I will have to publicly pronounce that I take free samples; it's as if my blog contains trans fat. Well, you can't get much more public than this.

But are they planning to tell newspapers and magazines the same thing? If not, why not?

I spent much of my life working at newspapers, and while all have ethics policies, I've never heard of one that takes absolutely no freebies.

Example: Did you know The Chronicle has a wine cellar full of free samples? (Actually the cellar is being remodeled, so the free wines are sitting in boxes in the main newsroom building.) When I worked here, The Chronicle never sent back a sample of wine or liquor. We donated some excess bottles to charities, but we trusted ourselves to make ethical use of most of the hundreds of bottles of free wine and liquor that arrive every month. And while the wine industry knew we took samples -- because we sent them emails requesting freebies, sometimes with specific instructions and deadlines -- we rarely if ever announced it to the general public.

Now that I'm a blogger, I'm supposed to report every time somebody sends me a single bottle?

Don't get me wrong -- I strongly supported The Chronicle's sample policy for the three years that I worked here as a wine writer, and still do. I tasted more than 1000 bottles a year here without paying for them. There's no way, on journalists' salaries, that we could afford to compare 75 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons, or convince a struggling newspaper company to pay for those wines. I believe we provided a service to readers by blind tasting and reporting our favorites.

That said, how much harder is it for me, now, without a journalist's salary, to compare even 10 Napa Valley Cabs unless they're freebies? Samples make bloggers more professional, not less.

It's not just wine. How do you think movie reviews appear on the day the film is released? The critic either saw a free screening or was sent a DVD. How is that different from a blogger taking a free DVD?

Is The Chronicle going to be asked to print "The writer saw the game for free" on every sports story? Aren't 49ers tickets a significant freebie?

Moreover, the FTC is missing a more important point: it's not how you got the goods, but what you do with them.

The New York Times presumably isn't scalping its seats in the press box for Yankees playoff games. But the Times did recently run a profile of Gary Vaynerchuk, who has a popular online wine video blog, calling him a "critic." Vaynerchuk's family owns a wine shop, which means he can directly profit from wines that he praises. He's not alone: other retail websites run "reviews" by their employees, or the products' distributors. But the FTC is apparently unconcerned about this.

Mainly, it's a fairness issue. The Chronicle doesn't have to announce that it takes freebies, but I do. Or do I?

Currently I sell freelance articles about wine to newspapers and magazines. I blog. I tweet. I write a regular column for Wine Review Online. I wrote a book about wine in Japanese and might soon write another.

Much of that writing, from 140-character tweets to my book, is based on free samples. So tell me, FTC, do I have to divulge that I received freebies if I blog, but not if I manage to sell an article here, to my former employer? (Not so likely after this op-ed, I admit.)

Chronicle Wine Editor Jon Bonne writes a blog and a column in the Sunday paper -- both of which can be read online. Does he have to tell about free samples in one, but not the other?

I'm not sure what the FTC is trying to protect consumers from. Let's say Hershey's sends a bunch of bloggers free chocolate bars. Some of them tweet: "OMG Hershey's chocolate is awesome!!!" Does the FTC believe US consumers are so stupid that Valrhona chocolate lovers will immediately switch? Give us some credit, Washington. We grew up with media and we're used to filtering it.

Wine Spectator (which gets far more expensive freebies than The Chronicle), the New York Times, The Chronicle and other print publications earned their influence because many people respect their opinions, not because they were favored by government regulations. I don't believe the FTC should be in the business of deciding which critics are legitimate. You either trust us all -- 49ers pass-taking Chronicle columnists and over-enthusiastic Hershey's twitterers -- or you don't trust any of us.

The rule is scheduled to take effect Dec. 1. I call for all newspapers and magazines that accept samples of any kind -- CDs for review, sports playoff tickets, et al -- to join with the blogging and tweeting community in solidarity. We are all writers, regardless of our medium. Let's protest this unfair intrusion of the Federal Trade Commission into the marketplace of ideas.

A Chronicle wine writer from 2004 to 2007, W. Blake Gray now writes The Gray Market Report wine blog. And he takes freebies.

To my fellow bloggers: I also submitted a version of this to the New York Times. They also refused to run it, but they did run this editorial haughtily supporting the new rule for us and not them. The editorial concludes thus:

But disclosure is a reasonable demand to make in any medium. It protects consumers and bolsters the bonds of trust between writers and their audience.

Yet the Times doesn't think "disclosure" should apply to its writers; only to print advertorials. I guess the Times buys all those books they review, right?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Great fruit wines for an uninterested market

Would you pay $23 for the best passion fruit wine in the world?

No? Neither would most people, which is why Radee Wine owner Makiko Yamashita is having a hard time selling wine.

It's funny that while we often describe expensive Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc as tasting like passion fruit, nobody wants to order a dry table wine that really tastes like passion fruit.

Yamashita is trying, though, as a one-woman sales force for wines she has made in Thailand by a Canadian.

She's originally from Kobe, one of Japan's most international cities, and went to Kyoto University. She worked for five years at Tokyo Mitsubishi Bank in Chicago before deciding she wanted to help poor people help themselves.

So she went to Northwestern for an MBA focusing on economic development. As part of a school project, she went to western Kenya to try to help small farmers.

"Farmers there grow just enough to eat," Yamashita said. "They don't eat well. Their health is really bad. We wanted them to have better seeds and crops so they could be healthier and transition to growing cash crops."

The first plant Yamashita's group introduced was the passion fruit, and it was the first time she'd had them ("It was so delicious," she said). Another researcher had decided the tart fruit was appropriate for the soil. But the locals took some convincing. Only after a few people were able to sell passion fruits in Nairobi for profits did others start paying attention.

Yamashita spent four months in Kenya, sharing a house with other researchers. She likes backpacking off the beaten track, so the sporadic electricity, lack of hot water and constant attention from locals didn't bother her. She did get bored with eating the same food as the locals, who eat ugali -- made from maize -- every single meal.

"It's like polenta but more starchy and hard," she says. "It doesn't have much flavor. They eat beef stew when they have beef, and they have a green vegetable that's like kale, but mostly they eat ugali. At first I hated it, but I got addicted to it. After three months I gained 10 pounds. I didn't have a mirror so I didn't know."

After four months, Yamashita moved to Thailand, where passion fruit grows well. There she met Dominic Rivard, a Canadian who had made ice wine before moving to the tropics. Rivard was already making pineapple wine for tourist shops, and Yamashita, newly in love with passion fruit, thought she saw business potential.

Her Northwestern MBA group wrote a business plan for making quality fruit wines in Thailand and exporting them to the U.S. It got her a degree, but her partners weren't actually interested in following through.

Meanwhile, her fiance, a psychiatrist, was finishing his residency in Chicago and had a job in Sacramento. Yamashita moved there to be with him.

Market-wise, that might have been a good move. While its cuisine is sophisticated, Chicago is considered a conservative city wine-wise. Sacramento may not be the most culinarily open place in the world, but it does have Corti Bros. Darrell Corti, who will sell anything he thinks tastes good, became one of her first customers.

Corti's mark of approval has gotten Yamashita in the door at some Bay Area restaurants, but still only a few carry her wines: Cav, Ana Mandara, Local Kitchen & Wine Merchant, Tamarine (Palo Alto).

Yamashita originally made 2000 cases total of the three wines: passion fruit, mangosteen and pineapple. While mangosteen has two harvests a year, Rivard can make passion fruit and pineapple wine year-round -- but Yamashita has to sell more wine first.

"We've only sold 60 cases so far," Yamashita said in September. "This is more difficult than I thought it would be. But I still think there's a market."

I know her feeling. I thought this was a unique story, and I really like two of the wines (see below). But I couldn't interest wine editors in it, so I'm giving it away on the Internet for free. Yamashita has a similar strategy.

"I bring it to parties pretty often, and I would say once a week I drink a bottle," she says. Hmm, more than 20,000 bottles at one bottle per week -- if sales don't pick up, she could be drinking fruit wine for a long time. At least it's good.

Tasting notes (Note: These wines can be ordered online from Corti Bros.)

Radee Passionfruit Fruit Wine ($22.50/500 ml)
The best value of the three Radee wines. It's funny to write "passion fruit" as a descriptor, but that's what you smell, along with some pine resin and honey. Though there is sugar added before fermentation, because of passion fruit's intense acidity, it doesn't taste particularly sweet, though there are notes of honey. It's tight, pungent and refreshing. The passion fruit lingers throughout the long finish. It's medium-bodied, and you could fool someone into thinking it's a Spatlese Riesling, which is how I'd use it. Mouthfeel is a bit syrupy, and it's slightly hot on the finish; 12.0% alcohol. I had this bottle open for more than a week in the fridge and it not only held up; it got more complex with time.

Radee Mangosteen Ambrosia ($31.50/375 ml)
Both this and the pineapple wine are made by freezing fruit juice and removing the water to concentrate it before fermentation (the passion fruit is made from straight juice). All three are fermented in stainless steel tanks. This is the most complex and unusual of the three wines, and the least like its source fruit. It's an almost-orange color, not quite rose. It smells like wild strawberry and mango with a cedary note. On the palate, wild strawberry is the main flavor, with subtle citrus and a slight sweetness. The mouthfeel is slightly thick but not syrupy, with enough acidity to carry it. Also 12.0% alcohol, but it doesn't taste hot. The flavors evolve with air. I'd love to try this with Thai beef salad.

Radee Pineapple Ambrosia ($27/375 ml)
The mangosteen wine is very hard to describe. Not this one -- it smells and tastes like pineapple. There's also a green note of pineapple skin. The mouthfeel is soft and it's not as sweet as actual pineapple juice. At 11.0% alcohol, it doesn't taste hot. If you like pineapple juice, you'd probably like this. I found it too simple and it was the only bottle that, even in a week, I didn't finish.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Stags Leap District Cabernets 2005

Stags Leap District has long been perhaps my favorite Napa Valley subappellation for Cabernet. Made properly, Stags Leap Cabs tend to be more elegant than others from warmer parts of the valley.

Stags Leap is in the southern part of the valley, so it gets cool breezes from the Pacific Ocean, allowing grapes to develop ripe flavors with less sugar (and thus less potential alcohol) than a few miles north.

Driving through is much more pleasant than the Oakville - Rutherford - St. Helena wine circus on Highway 29. Stags Leap includes the gentle hills straddling the Silverado Trail from Clos Du Val at the south end to Robert Sinskey Vineyards at the north. It's easy to not notice the boundaries because Silverado Trail is so pretty.

Like the wines, the tourist experience is understated, but expensive. Pine Ridge, like Clos Du Val and Sinskey, is on the general tasting circuit. But most of the other dozen or so wineries are open only by appointment, typically for a wine-and-snacks experience that runs $25 to $75 per person.

Speaking of audacious pricing, once a year the local vintners group releases a gift box that Goldman Sachs probably hands out as party favors: a collection of one wine each from 17 different producers. This year it's the 2005 vintage, and the price is $1,375, not including shipping.

I tasted 16 of the 17 at, of all places, an expensive San Francisco gift and knickknack shop (one winery's rep didn't show). I was one of the very few media; most drinkers were on the wineries' mailing lists, or were regular customers of the store. That made for an odd tasting environment; people were leaning glasses of red wine over pricey upholstery.

With only 16 wines, I could blast through all before too many department store shoppers were horrified by a grown man spitting wine into a bucket (one woman asked if I was OK.)

While these are expensive wines, not all are the top of the line. Shafer sent its multi-vineyard One Point Five Cabernet Sauvignon, not its usually exquisite Hillside Select. Pine Ridge included its 3500 case, $80 Stags Leap District Cabernet, not its 380 case, $100 Epitome Stags Leap Cabernet.

Notable by its absence was the defining winery of the district: Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, founded by Warren Winiarski in 1970, and winner of the Judgment of Paris red wine tasting in 1976. Winiarski sold the winery in 2007 for $185 million to a partnership of Washington's Ste. Michelle Estate and Tuscany's Piero Antinori. But it's still not a Stags Leap tasting without Stag's Leap. (Note that it's different from Stags' Leap Winery, owned by the Australian beer group Foster's; there was a long legal battle over that apostrophe.)

Overall, I found the wines to be -- as expected -- fairly elegant. Tannins were well tamed all around, sometimes to the point of timidity. There were a few fruit bombs, and some alcohol levels over 15%. But there were also a surprising number of wines with alcohol under 14%, a rarity for Napa Cabs these days. Fruit was usually bright, not stewed or roasted. The wines were clean, not rustic, and most were drinkable now, although some seemed likely to reward 5 years or more in the cellar.

A few notes on my favorites:

Terlato Family Vineyards Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 (NA)
American wine importer Tony Terlato made his fortune by overcharging suckers for Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, turning a flavorless but inoffensive wine into an unstoppable brand that's consistently the leading premium white wine choice in U.S. restaurants. The man does know wine and I find his less cynical domestic projects to generally be of the highest quality. This is no exception: This wine, from new plantings, is exactly what I want from Stags Leap -- elegant and balanced, with cherry and ripe red plum flavors and a nice current of minerality. A restrained 13.8% alcohol. In addition to being talented, head winemaker Doug Fletcher is married to the best cheese critic on the planet. 94

Clos du Val Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ($70)
Co-founder Bernard Portet has always been a maker of French-style wines in the heart of California. This is a typical effort, combining the complexity and restraint of Bordeaux with the ripe cherry of Napa Valley. In addition to fruit, the nose has notes of leather, copper and dried herbs and flowers, which you also taste on the long finish. Chewy tannins at the end add another dimension. Europhiles may like this wine better than typical Napa Cab fans. 94

Robert Sinskey Vineyards SLD Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ($90)
Robert Sinskey is one of the few openly organic, biodynamic farmers in a price category where most vintners still see such practices as a marketing negative. My theory is it's because Republicans eat steaks and buy pricey Cabernets, while Democrats eat line-caught wahoo and drink natural-yeast Pinot Noir. But anyway. Sinskey makes one of the widest ranges of wines in Stags Leap, and I often find one of his wines among my favorites in whatever category they're in. This is a lively wine with strong minerality, bright cherry fruit, notes of licorice and Christmas spices, well-managed tannins, focused acidity and a long finish. 94

Chimney Rock Winery Ganymede Vineyard Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 (NA)
Also owned by Tony Terlato (did I mention the guy knows wine?) Chimney Rock makes several single-vineyard Cabs -- as well as unusual single-clone Cabs -- that are only available at the winery. This is one of them. I hated the aroma at first; it was closed tight and covered by sulfur. But boy, is this nice on the palate. With its very gentle cherry fruit, this is one of the most delicate Cabs you'll ever have from Napa Valley. Just 13.5% alcohol. Eventually the nose should open up; I don't know how long the bottle was open before I tasted it. 92

Robinson Family Vineyards Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ($56)
Is it worth extra points that this is one of the most beautiful labels I've ever seen -- a watercolor of the vineyards? Patriarch Norman Robinson bought land in Napa Valley after retiring from the U.S. Army in 1967 (good time to get out), and it turned out his neighbor was vineyard pioneer Nathan Fay. Though just 14.4% alcohol, this wine smells overripe -- like blueberry syrup -- so the ripping acidity on the palate is a surprise, along with the ripe red fruits (cherries and plums). The acidity gives it hope for a long life, and a future where the blueberry aromas and red fruit flavors coalesce. 91

Shafer Vineyards One Point Five Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ($70)
Winemaker Elias Fernandez is one of the best in the world at achieving concentration and drink-now hedonistic wines without going over the edge into overripeness. This wine combines some hillside estate fruit with grapes from the Borderline vineyard purchased in 1999. As expected from Shafer, it's intense and concentrated, and the black cherry fruit tastes quite ripe, but the tannins are soft, it doesn't taste hot and there are some cola notes. If you like ripe fruit, you'll like this. 91

Hartwell Vineyards Estate Reserve Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon ($115)
Hartwell's vineyards are actually planted atop a volcano. Fortunately, it hasn't erupted in 4 million years. This wine is very ripe (15.2% alcohol) but it's complex, with notes of cherry, dried plum, allspice and clove, and has chewy tannins that give it presence in the mouth. I like the hints of spice on the finish. 91

Also good (85-89 points, not great value at these prices):
Stags' Leap Winery The Leap Estate Grown Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2005
Steltzner Vineyards Estate Reserve 40th Anniversary Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2005
Taylor Family Vineyards Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2005

I just didn't like:
Baldacci Family Vineyards Black Label Estate Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2005
Cliff Lede Vineyards Poetry Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2005
Ilsley Vineyards Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2005
Malk Family Vineyards Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2005
Pine Ridge Vineyards Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2005
Silverado Vineyards Solo Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2005

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Wine Spectator manages to screw up pairing wine with steak

I've seen some weak articles on wine and food pairing, but I think one in Wine Spectator's Nov. 15 edition about pairing wine with steak -- the food nearly every red wine maker seems to want on the menu for its wine-pairing dinners -- is the worst ever.

Here's why.

1) It's completely worthless to the reader for practical advice.

2) In four pages of copy, only three wines are mentioned, costing $175, $70 and $90 retail.

3) The article emphasizes failure, i.e., "None of the three had the balance or grace that were needed." So buddy -- pick other wines! Maybe one that costs $20?

4) It's a product placement for Del Frisco's Restaurant Group, which is the only steakhouse mentioned in all four pages. Explain to me again why the FTC wants bloggers to divulge freebies, but not magazines.

This article is an extreme example of what's wrong with many food-and-wine pairing articles: not enough care about the reader. Instead, as with this article, many writers just want to brag about their own experience.

Moreover, they make it seem as if there's only one wine in the world that can possibly work with a dish, and that other wines are simply failures.

I don't want to go to the other extreme. Wine pairing matters, and you can easily prove it to yourself with some goat cheese, a Sauvignon Blanc and a Chardonnay. One wine will taste good with the goat cheese; the other will not. (Hint: if you can only afford one, get SB).

But that is a carefully chosen example of a food with an extreme taste-texture combination that isn't friendly to many wines. Most foods are not like this.

Steak is certainly not like this. Go to Bern's Steak House in Tampa, Florida, home of perhaps America's best wine list, and chat up one of the sommeliers. The last time I was there, I was in an aged Cab mood, but they convinced me to have Burgundy instead and the wines were lovely. Our neighbors were drinking Petite Sirah; others in the room had a Merlot. I'd have a hard time saying any of those is a lousy match. (Maybe that's why I'm not at Wine Spectator.)

My favorite local takeout place is Good Frikkin' Chicken, which makes a superb rotisserie chicken with Middle Eastern spices. Since I eat this relatively often, I have had great matches for it with Chardonnay, Viognier, sparkling wine, sake, Pinot Noir, Grenache, rose, cider, Chateauneuf du Pape, Albarino, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, and other alcoholic beverages I'm probably forgetting. Maybe my all-time favorite pairing with it is slightly toasty, non-malolactic Chardonnay with decent acidity. But as you can see, I don't start weeping if I don't have such a bottle chilled.

Here's the thing: People reading about wine and food pairing are, generally, anxious. Maybe they're having a dinner party and they want it to go perfectly. Maybe they are just learning about wine.

It's no service to these readers to increase their anxieties. People writing about wine and food matches should tell us what works, in general terms -- not like Wine Spectator claiming that only a specific $175 wine goes with filet mignon. Are Del Frisco's steaks really that unforgiving?

Writers should also tell us what doesn't work. Sweet foods and dry wines, that's troublesome. Salty foods and high-alcohol wines is another toughie. There, that's more useful advice in two short sentences than Wine Spectator doled out in four product-placed pages.

Too often, I read some star-struck writer who got a free meal somewhere say, "The single-vineyard Gewurztraminer (only 24 cases made) with the river fish flown in from Japan in a sauce of wild-picked chanterelles was divine!" As if that's going to help someone who's planning to cook trout and wonders what bottle at BevMo will go with it (hint: try a floral and/or fruity white).

This article goes down a similar route: the food expert showing off. Here's a paragraph:

Many things influence beef flavor, including breed, feed, cut, marbling and aging method. Always check a steak's marbling, the fat within the muscle of the meat; more fat tends to mean the meat is more tender, flavorful and juicy. Another consideration is whether the steak is wet-aged or dry-aged. Wet-aged meat is put in vacuum-sealed plastic bags and aged in its own juices. Dry-aged meat is exposed to air for weeks, while enzymes in the beef break down the muscle fibers, tenderizing the meat and adding distinctive mineral and game flavors. The meat loses about 20 percent of its weight in the process, contributing to the higher cost of dry-aged steak.
That would be really helpful if the writer would tell us what kind of wine goes well with dry-aged steak -- but he doesn't. Instead, all it does is make me worry that if I don't know what the cow was fed, I can't possibly choose the right wine.

Articles like this are a disservice to wine and food lovers. Thank you for reading my rant.

Wine on Foodista

Monday, November 2, 2009

New wine science: A camera that sizes up grapes

Here's the latest technological breakthrough in winemaking: an optical scanner that sorts out grapes of the wrong size, color or shape.

I saw this device in use in Bordeaux last month and it was amazing. Everyone who had one said, "There are only 10 in the world," but I saw four and Christian Moueix told me he has one both in France and at Dominus in Napa Valley.

By next year, there will be a lot more. It's just that great.

Here's how it works. The winemaker shoots a photo of what he considers an ideal grape: size, shape, color. He adjusts the scanner's parameters so that any grape that doesn't measure up will be blown off the belt by a puff of compressed air.

Harvest workers then dump their loads of grapes into the destemmer. The grapes that emerge speed by at 55 mph through the optical scanner. The rejects are blown out faster than the human eye can see. The red vat in the photo is full of reject soup.

I watched this process several times and it's not absolutely perfect -- a few crushed grapes make it through. But I didn't see any stems, miscolored grapes or raisins make it past the scanner. The final sort was more than 99% perfect.

Of course, a traditional sorting table with enough workers can also deliver that kind of quality, possibly even 100%. But that doesn't make the traditional sorting table better for one key reason -- speed. No humans could ever sort grapes this quickly. It's much better to get the grapes destemmed and into fermentation tanks, rather than have boxes of picked grapes back up and warm up while waiting to be sorted.

All the wineries where I saw this machine were delighted with it, and why not? It saves labor, it has huge processing capacity and it does the job. Don't cry for the jobs eliminated -- sorting grapes is only a few days of work per year anyway. Instead, cry with joy for the greater quality wines that will be produced with this thing.

Funny story of man vs. machine: Chateau de Pressac in Saint-Emilion was the first place I saw this thing in use. Owner Jean Francois Quenin said it had just started working again. I wondered if the new machine had malfunctioned.

"A tractor driver drove into it with the year's very first load of grapes," Quenin said. "I guess he didn't expect it to be there." Quenin called the manufacturer and they immediately sent a repairman, who fixed the damage.

A fellow vintner asked, "What happened to the tractor driver? Did you fire him?" Quenin said, "Oh yes." With emphasis. Just like in Terminator, the machines win again.