Thursday, December 31, 2009

What Cristal tastes like

I'm presenting this tasting note today as a public service. If you're thinking about ringing in the Teens tonight in high style, this might be useful. If not, please drink vicariously responsibly.

Louis Roederer Cristal Champagne 2002 ($212)

There are days when it's good to go to work. Cracking open a bottle of Cristal is one of those -- and not just because it's delicious.

When I worked at a major newspaper, we tasted dozens of wines every week, but the only wine I recall every food writer begging to sample was Cristal. People hear that Jay-Z is boycotting it, or that P. Diddy tried to buy every bottle in Arizona for a Super Bowl party, and naturally they're curious. What's all the fuss about?

Partly it's the hope of living like the superstars from the supermarket tabloids. But there's also some anticipatory schadenfreude. Most people don't want to drop $200 on a bottle of Champagne at a retail store, or maybe 3 times that in a nightclub. It would be better overall if people could have a single sip, say, "Ah, Two Buck Chuck is just as good," and live the rest of their lives satisfied with their lot.

I wish I could give everyone that comfort. But I have to tell you, this is a great wine, even more so because it's easy for anyone to appreciate. Plenty of people who buy Cristal couldn't care less about terroir, minerality, balance, etc. They want a great-tasting wine, and Cristal really delivers.

The aromas are of golden pear, wheat toast, Pippin apple, pine resin, and raisins both black and golden. The first taste is ripe golden pear that shifts to slightly tart apple, sweetening to Fuji apple on the lengthy finish. There's a toastiness behind the fruit that adds gravitas, and the finish will please the serious wine fan, but mainly it's exuberant. I was amazed, then remorseful, at how quickly my bottle emptied.

That's as it should be. Cristal doesn't need to be super complex and thought-provoking. This is not a wine consumed at quiet upscale restaurants -- it's drunk at nightclubs, by partiers flashing their cash for a good time. It gives you that. Cristal does what you ask of it, and I don't see how you can want more from a wine, or any product, than that. 96

If you're into value at the end of the decade, I recommend several great bubblies under $20. Click on any of the links to the right between Louis Bouillot and Roederer Estate. (Don't miss Domaine J. Laurens and Scharffenberger.)

Best wishes for 2010.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

My winery and wine of the year

Lopez de Heredia
Rioja, Spain

Walking into the cellars at Lopez de Heredia was one of my most memorable experiences in the wine world. The glass tasting building has a cool decanter-shaped design by architect Zaha Hadid, so what's awaiting you underground is a shock.

Black mold and cobwebs, everywhere. You feel like you've stepped back in time, maybe to the Spanish Inquisition.

"Many wineries don't really use the cellar so they clean off the walls," says winemaker Mercedes Lopez de Heredia. "They don't want the mold. This is how a natural cellar really looks."

"Of the year" awards tend to go to new kids on the block -- people making innovations that have changed the market or industry.

But this year, tradition is the new black. Wine geeks aren't into pushing science forward anymore. Everybody's excited about open-air fermentation, cement tanks, native yeasts -- the way wine was made by our grandparents.

You could probably get more traditional than Lopez de Heredia. But this winery is so into age, it's freaky. The current release of their Vina Tondonia red wine, their flagship brand, is 1991. For the Vina Tondonia white, it's 1987. Even their bottom-of-the line Cubilla wine, a Crianza, has a 2001 current release.

"We are famous for not accelerating the making of a wine," Lopez de Heredia says.

And not just with wines -- they have some oak barrels that are 80 years old. Rather than buy new barrels, they prefer to replace individual broken staves on the old ones. For this, they have an onsite carpentry staff, which they keep busy by also making all their own doors.

"It costs more to repair barrels than to make new ones," Lopez de Heredia says. ""But it is better for the wines. We want the micro oxygenation of the wine to be as slow as possible. For us, oak is a way for the wine to get better but it must not taste of wood."

As for the cobwebs, she says, "The spiders are a natural way of taking care of fruit flies," which are a problem for the corks. This is an issue when you have whole racks of wines from 1890 sitting around in your cellar. But Lopez de Heredia says wines that are too old are a gamble, so she refuses to sell anything bottled before 1942.

Lopez de Heredia learned her excellent English as an exchange student in the US. She spent 12th grade in Kentucky.

"My father sent the family wine for Christmas," she said. "They were Baptists, they don't drink. They gave it away to some Catholic friends. I was 18. I couldn't believe I didn't have wine with Christmas. I drank a beer and they almost sent me back to Spain."

What I can't believe is that anyone would turn down the chance to try one of these wines, well-preserved by cobwebs and mold. I used flash to take a photo of one particularly ancient looking pile of bottles and noticed they were whites. Turned out they were from 1970, the year of Mercedes Lopez de Heredia's birth, and yes, they are for sale (if you ask). I asked to try one. To say she "dusted it off" doesn't really convey the amount of cleaning the bottle needed before it could be opened. But wow -- that was my most memorable wine of the year, from my most memorable winery visit of the year.

What's greatest about Lopez de Heredia is that your granddaughter might be able to go there, to that exact pile of wines, and buy a bottle, and it might be even better.

1970 Vina Tondonia Rioja white
The color is golden yellow, and despite its age and lack of filtering the wine is clear. Initially it smells of ripe pear, honey, dried apple and wildflowers. The floral complexity increases as it warms. On the palate, there's still plenty of acidity. I could write a lengthy paragraph about the flavors using just nouns. Here are a few: pear, dried apple, flowers, walnut bread, minerality, macadamia nuts, cashews, peanuts. It gets more and more nutty with air. The mouthfeel is mead-like, honeyed but completely dry. It's sensual and still very fresh. An amazing experience. I refused to leave the winery until we finished the last drop; the wine deserved our complete respect. 100 points.

This ran yesterday on Wine Review Online.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Wine quote of the year

Wine geeks are always writing about the vessel a wine is made in. Cement tanks have made a coolness comeback this year, as part of the tradition backlash. Then there are small oak barrels, large oak barrels, old oak casks -- most winemakers talk about their winemaking vessel as a key ingredient.

I was fortunate enough this year to visit Chateau Angelus in France's Saint-Emilion region, and to have lunch with owner Hubert de Bouard in his home (his wife made amazing pasta with truffles). Before visiting the winery (which you can see in the background of the photo), I asked him what he made his wine in.

He said,

"Haut-Brion is made with stainless steel, Margaux with wood, Petrus with concrete. Sometimes they make good wines. For me, the vat is the vat, the wine is the wine."

That's my wine quote of the year. Merci, Mr. Bouard.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Single-vineyard Champagnes aren't better

Single-vineyard Champagnes are all the rage, because they seem like they're more "back to the land." But that doesn't mean they're better.

I like grower Champagnes philosophically, because I like supporting farmers instead of corporations. But I believe the nature of bubbly is best served by blending wines from different areas, and this was driven home by a tasting last month with Hugh Davies and Keith Hock (pictured), proprietor and winemaker of Schramsberg.

We tasted tank samples of nouveau still wines from six different vineyards -- just a small part of the bounty from 95 different vineyards Schramsberg worked with in 2009.

Vineyards good for sparkling wine grapes are practically unknown to the general public because they rarely end up on a wine label. Bubbly makers like grapes with strong acidity and not too much sugar -- the opposite of what most producers of still Chardonnay and Pinot Noir want these days.

Of the six vineyards I tasted samples from, only one -- Hawk Hill, in western Sonoma County -- also sells its grapes for still wine, to Williams Selyem. But all had very different character, which tended to be one-dimensional, because the grapes were picked so early and the first fermentation had barely finished.

Hawk Hill fruit was taut like lime juice. Jones Vineyard fruit from Carneros had minerality and a long finish. Stevens Vineyard fruit from Marin County was like an explosion of lime and ripe apricot. Tognetti-Lyre Vineyard fruit, also from Carneros, was so chalky and musty that it was unpleasant.

Add up those descriptors (skipping unpleasant) and here's what you've got -- taut like lime juice, minerality, long finish, ripe apricot, chalky, musty. Doesn't that sound like a great sparkling wine?

That's why Schramsberg blends, and that's why the big Champagne brands blend as well.

So keep this in mind when you're out shopping for bubbly this week. One vineyard might mean only one dimension -- when I want more dimensions than Stephen Hawking sees on acid.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Let's stand up to terrorists

This isn't about wine, but I have to get this off my chest.

When are we, as a nation, going to stand up to terrorists? When are we going to stop diminishing our freedom and quality of life every time some lone crackpot tries something that doesn't work?

At my fitness club this morning I was forced to watch CNN, where it's all terrorist, all the time. No wonder Americans are so fearful.

But folks -- the attempt failed! The guy didn't cause a fire, didn't blow anything up, didn't cause a single injury to anyone but himself.

Yet as a result, every one of the millions of air passengers in the US now can't go to the toilet for the last hour of every flight. That's going to make me miserable plenty of times, because I like to stay hydrated. And not only me.

No, it is not a worthwhile sacrifice. This new restriction wouldn't have affected this terror attempt at all, because the guy was sitting in his chair when he did it.

You know what would have helped? Having somebody realize that this guy's own father told the US Embassy several weeks ago that he was a security risk.

US security officials let us down -- just like on 9/11, when they hadn't read their memos -- and now they're punishing all air travelers for their mistake.

Moreover, Nate Silver published statistics at that show that, including the 9/11 attacks, you are 20 times more likely to be struck by lightning than to be on a plane where a terrorist incident occurs. We're not taking lightning strikes seriously enough! We need more lightning security!

I want some leadership in this country. I want somebody -- preferably President Obama, but any major leader will do -- to stand up and say, "We will not sacrifice our comfort and our lifestyle to these lone terrorist actions. There may be more behind-the-scenes security procedures. Our screening on known potential terrorists may be stepped up. But we want to encourage American business people and tourists to continue enjoying the freedom to fly and travel that our ancestors and contemporary military continue to fight for."

Who's with me, anyone? Or should we just concede that the terrorists have won another round?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Me vs. breathalyzer: A tale of suspense and penguins

I've been away from the blog because I was on vacation in New Zealand and unable to reach a computer. My most memorable event wasn't our 5-day, 72 km hike or walking on a glacier or zipping through river rapids with only a boogie board.

A week ago I drove from Queenstown to Dunedin after a morning spent canyoning (working through a river canyon by abseiling, ziplining, swimming, jumping, etc.), which was a blast. We planned to see albatross and penguins in their natural habitat on the Otago peninsula. But we were hungry, and it was already evening.

We went to a restaurant/bar on the Octagon, where I ordered venison tenderloin. Naturally, I wanted a local Central Otago Pinot Noir to go with it. My wife ordered crispy skin salmon, also a good Pinot dish.

The bar had several interesting Pinots by the glass, and their bottle markup was too high, so we ended up having 3 glasses of Pinot, of which I drank about 2 1/2.

While waiting for our food, I leafed through Lonely Planet and realized the best time to see blue penguins would be at dusk, still more than an hour away. I didn't want to rush my wife's meal, so while I ate hurriedly, I said nothing. But as soon as she finished, I said, "Let's go!"

We raced to the rental car, jumped in and headed off. Less than five minutes later, I encountered a DUI checkpoint. New Zealand police were pulling everyone over to be breathalyzed.

My wife began beseeching God and Buddha for assistance while I considered a rapid U-turn. But several motorcycle cops there were probably just waiting for such an opportunity. So I decided to take my chances.

I thought, what happens if you get a DUI in a foreign country? Can it affect your driving record at home? Will they keep me in jail until deporting me? Will I have to go back and face charges later? And what is the legal blood alcohol level here anyway? My wife just kept praying.

Soon it was my turn, and the cop leaned into the window, explaining, "We're testing everyone for alcohol tonight. Please count slowly from 1 to 5 into the breathalyzer."

I told myself, "Just act calm," but I could hear my heart in my ears. I tried to count distinctly without expelling much air, not easy to do when you're almost hyperventilating.

The cop pulled the machine away. If there was a moment when I lost my carefully cultivated cool, this was it -- I leaned out to watch the display, which read, "Calculating … calculating …"

Could my wife drive the rental car back to the hotel? No, she's more of a lightweight than me. It would be towed, so we'd have that expense as well.

"Calculating … calculating …"

Hopefully she could bail me out tonight. Would I need a lawyer? Our flight was in how many days, 4? Would I be able to leave?

The screen cleared for a split-second, then it read:


Wow. I almost cracked, "Hey, that thing's broken!" but fortunately I wasn't intoxicated or stupid enough to do so. The officer thanked me and we drove off, waiting to laugh for a polite 100 meters or so.

We did see blue penguins, no more than a couple of meters from us. But as exciting as that was, it will never be the highlight of that evening for me.

Turns out the legal intoxication limit for New Zealand is 0.05. Central Otago Pinot Noir is not Burgundy -- most are about 14% alcohol. Using an Internet BAL calculator, that's exactly what I came up with for my estimated level. I don't think I was intoxicated; I wouldn't drive if I thought I was intoxicated. But there's no way that machine should have read NO ALCOHOL.

Thank you, God. And Buddha.

Merry Christmas to all. I wish you as much good fortune as I had that night.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A holiday thank-you to George W. Bush from a food-loving Democrat

I had an argument with a vegetarian friend on Facebook just before Thanksgiving that prompted me to think about how American politics has changed my personal food politics.

After accusing me of being party to mass murder of turkeys, she complained that nothing she could say could stop me from enjoying a genetically modified, antibiotic-laden turkey on Thanksgiving.

I don't care if animals bred for food are killed. Do vegans weep over the souls of farmed shrimp? But her parting shot -- an appeal to the environment and my health -- would have worked on me 6 years ago, and I might have spent the holiday wringing my hands with guilt. Not anymore, courtesy of George W. Bush. Though I'm a lifelong Democrat, I should send him a thank-you note.

I have always been a political shopper. I believe your most important vote is the money you spend.

The 2004 election changed me in an important way that I'm only now able to express.

There are two types of social-values shopping: positive and negative. I can support businesses I approve of by buying their products. Conversely, I can reject products I don't approve of by refusing to buy them.

Until November 2004, I practiced both. In fact, I gave up beef for 14 years because I am convinced that it's impossible to raise cattle for food in an environmentally sound way. I spent much of the 1990s evangelizing this position, annoying my friends every time they ordered a steak or burger in front of me, and trying my best to prevent anyone from getting a beef dish at any shared dinner.

It wasn't easy to give up beef. I loved cheeseburgers, prime rib, kitfo (Ethiopian-style raw beef), beef tacos, steak tartare, short ribs. Note the two raw dishes: I liked the flavor of beef so much that I went through a phase of ordering my hamburgers raw, with onions, pickles and melted cheddar, after discovering it that way on a Tampa restaurant menu.

I'm not an anti-beef activist anymore, and besides, "Fast Food Nation" evangelizes better than me. I still don't believe large cattle ranch operations can be run responsibly, and little operations can't really compete with the big guys. Bill Niman doesn't own Niman Ranch anymore; that should tell you something.

So why did I eat at House of Prime Rib last night?

About a week after Bush won re-election, I was out in one of the closest conservative suburbs to San Francisco. I noticed many people driving 9-passenger SUVs by themselves. I thought, I could live a Buddha-like life, never supporting any bad industries -- in fact, I could buy nothing at all, starving to death when my kitchen emptied -- but it would have no impact compared to what the mass market does. A steakhouse sells more beef in a day than I could forego in 20 years. I had my first cheeseburger in 14 years that very day.

I had always identified myself as an environmentalist, but from 2005 to Nov. 2008 I was instead a jaded ex-environmentalist. I didn't litter or ask for extra styrofoam packaging, but I didn't deprive myself of anything I wanted. Why bother?

Barack Obama's election forced me to rethink. In fact, that night, when I came in from literally dancing in the street, my wife asked if I planned to give up beef again. I said no, and it felt right, but I didn't have a solid reason. Now, thanks to my angry vegetarian friend, I finally have a cohesive philosophy.

Even during my four years of being jaded, I never stopped buying organic or sustainable produce, fertile eggs from pasture-raised chickens, line-caught fish, all that sort of thing.

I choose now to act only positively as a political buyer. I'm a locavore. I support people and businesses I believe in. But I don't bother to deprive myself of anything, because I don't see the point.

I haven't bought a Coca Cola in probably 20 years. I haven't bought a Hershey's bar in maybe 30 years. Neither is for political reasons; they're just too sugary and simple for me. Nonetheless, is the lack of my patronage, for whatever reason, hurting their bottom line? Of course not.

I can't stop the American beef industry from running roughshod over our public lands. But I can support a Marin County farmer who raises a small grass-fed herd sustainably. As often as possible, I will do that.

And when I don't -- when I decide to have a hunk of prime rib, or a corporate food product (I am NOT giving up LVMH Champagnes) -- I'm not going to feel guilty, no matter what my further-left friends say.

So that's my philosophy: Depriving oneself has no impact, but supporting good businesses has a positive impact.

And yes Michelle, that mass-murdered, genetically modified, antibiotic-laden turkey was mighty good. Try it next year with some giblet gravy, made from the tasty internal organs. Mmm, mmm.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Louis Bouillot: Good value in Burgundy? Sacre bleu!

For still wines, Burgundy is the most beguiling and frustrating region on earth. But for bubbly, it's a source of great values.

Think about it -- they grow Pinot Noir and Chardonnay there. Why wouldn't they make good bubbly?

I've been loving this wine on a regular basis ever since seeing it for under $20 on a Vietnamese restaurant's wine list. My dates with it feel like a clandestine affair, passionate and foamy and I guess I better stop there.

What's not to love about an affordable pink bubbly made from quality Pinot Noir grapes? Even shipped halfway across the globe, it still undercuts domestic pink bubblies on price. Why pay $75 for pink Champagne when you can have this?

Louis Bouillot Perle d'Aurore Cremant de Bourgogne Rose NV ($14)

I keep coming back to this wine and marveling at the quality-price ratio. Made from 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Gamay Noir, it's a rich, fruity pink bubbly with a hint of Burgundian earthiness. Sophisticated and delicious, it could fool your friends into thinking it's a pricey Champagne. 90

Friday, December 11, 2009

Domaine J. Laurens: the OB (Original Bubbly)

The French village of Limoux claims to have been making sparkling wine longer than Champagne, but in modern times its wines have never been seen as reaching the same level of excellence.

That's bad for Limoux grapegrowers, but good for consumers, because how often do you actually drink a top-level bubbly? And the best Cremants de Limoux are as good as or better than entry-level Champagnes at less than half the price.

This wine is a great example. I'd rather drink this than many nonvintage Champagnes on the market, and I guarantee you won't find a Champagne for $13. This is one of the best sparkling-wine values I've had this year.

Click here to buy it.

Domaine J. Laurens Cremant de Limoux Brut ($13)
Wow, what a value. If I tasted this blind, I would have guessed Anderson Valley because of the brightness of the green apple and lemon fruit, and the nice clean finish. In fact, it's from France's Limoux region, which claims to have been making bubbly as long as Champagne. You can enjoy it with any of the traditional bubbly pairings; I actually had a bottle with a pepperoni pizza and it was outstanding. 90

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Schramsberg: one of the world's best half-bottles

Want to feel like a first-class airline passenger, without spending $10,000?

Most people don't realize that splits of sparkling wine are rarely made in the same way as full-sized 750 ml bottles. It's too much hassle to go through for wineries, so they usually use Charmat or another method of secondary fermentation, rather than in the bottle.

Schramsberg didn't do that with this wine; instead, they made it the traditional way, intending these splits for situations like first-class service on airplanes. You can drink first class with one of these cuties for the price of a super shuttle.

People like to pitch half-bottles as perfect for one person, and it's true. But I want to point out that a couple can get two good-sized glasses out of this, and sometimes that's all you need.

Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs 2005 375 ml Methode Champenoise! ($20)

This is a serious wine for a split, with a toasty, leesy aroma, bright golden apple fruit and a round mouthfeel. Indeed, it feels first-class. It gets even more complex with air, although it's tasty enough that few people will be able to leave it alone after opening it. Great when you want a glass or two of something really good. 92

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Scharffenberger: It's back, though it never left

John Scharffenberger started his eponymous winery in 1981, when premium American bubbly was still a niche product.

He sold it and moved on to making chocolate, but he sold that too.

These days John raises Iberian pigs in Mendocino County to make high-quality ham.

The distributors of Roederer wines have kept the Scharffenberger name in bubbles, though, and it's a product worthy of the man, even if he's not still involved.

Scharffenberger Mendocino County Brut NV ($19)
Like the Artist Known Again as Prince, Scharffenberger spent several years under another name -- Pacific Echo -- before having its brand restored. Winemaker Tex Sawyer never left and never stopped making great value bubblies. This wine undergoes 100 percent malolactic fermentation, but I would never have guessed that from the crisp, clean Meyer lemon and green apple flavors. It's a blend of about 65% Pinot Noir and 35% Chardonnay, aged two years on the lees -- a lot of value for under $20. 90

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Roederer Estate: A go-to bubbly from California

I like Roederer's wines both from France and their outpost in Anderson Valley. But they're very different. The French wines are subtle and elegant, while the California wines have brighter fruit.

The bigger difference is price: Roederer's domestic wines are much cheaper in this country, not surprisingly.

This wine is one of my favorite by-the-glass orders at restaurants all over the Bay Area; you never go wrong with it.

Roederer Estate Anderson Valley Brut NV ($23)

This has long been my one of my go-to wines, and a standard I measure other affordable bubblies against. The price has edged up over the years, though, going over the $20 rubicon. Still, there's a lot of value here: it's made from all estate Anderson Valley fruit, about 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir. While there is a touch of oak, there's little to no malolactic fermentation, creating a bright, fruity wine that I see as an archetype of the California style, ironic in that Roederer is a French company. It delivers green apple and lime with a little crusty bread and some yeastiness on the finish. 90

Monday, December 7, 2009

Bubbly of the day -- Vigna Dogarina Prosecco

It's bubbly of the day time!

Americans don't drink enough sparkling wine. If I could have only one type of wine for the rest of my life, it would be bubbly. It goes with any food, it's refreshing and low in alcohol. And it's festive fun.

Rather than write a long list of bubblies I like, I thought I'd string it out a bit by highlighting a bubbly of the day for the next week. (Plus I can hide the fact that I'm out of the country ...)

Here's the first, the best Prosecco I've had this year. It's brought to you by the folks at Paulaner, beer specialists who are dipping their toes in the wine market. So far, so good with this one.

The bottle is stylishly black, so reflective that you can see yours truly snapping the photo.

Vigna Dogarina Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Brut NV ($16)
Most Proseccos are flighty little quaffs, meant to be downed quickly before dinner. This one is worthy of bringing to the table. It smells like lemon-lime soda served in a granite container. On the palate, there's bright lemon-lime with a pleasing mineral scratchiness, like a quick brush with a stone. The finish has some length to it. It's not super complex, but the broad flavors are well-contrasted. It's poised between fun and serious, a good place for a Prosecco to be. 90

Friday, December 4, 2009

Calistoga is a place, but Champagne is not

Congratulations to the TTB for deciding that Calistoga is a place after all -- but only because the locals speak English.

After a 6 year legal battle, the federal agency in charge of wine labels agreed that Calistoga is a wine region that can be used as an American Viticultural Area.

Anyone who has spent any time in Napa Valley knows this is a just decision -- the climate is much different in Calistoga than neighboring St. Helena. The irony is, I wonder how many producers will put Calistoga on their labels (Chateau Montelena apparently is already planning to). It's a nice town, but it's also one of the hottest parts of Napa Valley. I might be more inclined to buy a Napa Valley Cabernet than a Calistoga Cabernet, because I would fear roasted fruit.

In making the decision, the TTB ruled against Calistoga Cellars, which now has 3 years to either start using Calistoga grapes or change its brand name.

I'm not sympathetic. Calistoga Cellars has only been around for about a decade, and -- how can I put this politely -- it's not that good, either in quality or marketing savvy. It's just one more mediocre small winery in a valley that has no shortage of them, and it was fighting to prevent consumers from learning where their wine's grapes came from.

Now that this decision has been made, can we get the TTB to acknowledge that Champagne is also a place?

The argument is always made that Korbel and Cook's and Andre have spent millions marketing Champagne as part of the names, so they're grandfathered in.

That's just wrong. Korbel is Korbel (I like their brut rose), not Korbel Champagne. If they had to take Champagne off the label tomorrow, does anyone really think some housewife in Iowa will stop buying it? "Oh my God, I thought this was the same as Cristal, but it's only sparkling wine."

I have contempt for Gallo, which owns Andre, and Constellation, which owns Cook's, on this issue. These corporations are simply deceiving consumers. At least Korbel uses the methode champenoise. Andre and Cook's are carbonated wine.

French trade organizations have been complaining about this for years, but the US always digs in its heels to defend Gallo and Constellation. As a nation, we are wrong on this.

The TTB declared Calistoga a place because winegrowers with a few decades of experience think it might have unique terroir. Champagne houses have been making wine for centuries. The rest of the world recognizes its terroir. It's time for us to do the same.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Why Amazon won't sell wine -- the real story

Everybody in the wine world felt something when announced in October that it was canceling its plan to sell wine. Wine lovers and small wineries gnashed their teeth while retailers, distributors and popped corks.

At the time, everyone (including the Wall Street Journal) thought it was because of the maze of state regulations.

I learned this week of an issue completely unrelated to wine that had far greater repercussions for the world's largest internet retailer: sales tax. Not just on wine, but on everything.

Currently Amazon collects sales tax for only five states: Kansas, Kentucky, New York, North Dakota and Washington. It gets away with not collecting sales tax in the huge California market because it has no brick-and-mortar shop here.

However, in order to ship wine from California -- which was the plan -- Amazon would have had to open a retail outlet to comply with state law. has one in Berkeley for exactly this reason. ( also has a shop in New York that's so obviously for legal requirements that it will not take cash.)

The problem is, once that California store was open, even if it was only 100 square feet with two items for sale, Amazon the company would have become a California retail shop for the purposes of state tax law, and would have had to start collecting sales tax on everything sold in the Golden State.

One of the main reasons Amazon is so attractive to consumers is its low prices. Adding 8.25% to the price of everything in California would eliminate much of that. The company calculated that the profit it made from selling wine nationwide wouldn't offset the potential loss of business from California alone.

Moreover, the sales tax issue would quickly have compounded. Once cash-strapped state legislatures in Florida and Texas and everywhere else realized California was collecting sales tax from Amazon, they would have reached for their share of the pie.

It's easy to say Amazon could have sold only wines from Washington and New York -- where they're already collecting sales tax -- and Oregon, which has no sales tax. There are some great wines from those states, but how big is the market for them? Amazon doesn't like to lose, but in this case, it would never have been the go-to wine website, not when consumers could go to and buy brands they already know.

Amazon's wine initiative is dead for now. But keep an eye on the California budget crisis, which is becoming like the never-ending TV show "24." (There's a bomb! A virus! A mole! How can we survive the hour!) There has been a lot of opposition to imposing sales tax on websites because the Internet industry is so important here. If that position ever changes, and Amazon has to start collecting sales taxes anyway, wine lovers might get an unexpected benefit.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Beer drinkers pretend to be wine drinkers

Americans claim we drink more wine than beer, but don't believe us. We're still a nation of beer drinkers who lie to ourselves.

Gallup has been running an opinion survey on alcohol since 1939. A couple of years ago the poll got attention because for the first time, more survey respondents named wine as their favorite beverage, rather than beer. This was also true in 2009.

Numbers tell a very different story. In 2008, 705 million gallons of wine were sold in the United States -- compared to 6,628 million gallons of beer. That's more than 9 times as much.

So either the average beer drinker consumes 9 times as much as the average wine drinker -- not impossible, I grant you -- or, more likely, a whole lot of people claim they prefer wine when they've got a fridge full of Blue Moon (a MillerCoors product, FYI.)

One thing hasn't changed about Americans' drinking habits in 70 years. This year 36% of American adults claimed to drink no alcohol at all; the figure has stayed between 35 and 40 percent for decades.

Of course, since beer drinkers were already lying about preferring wine ... makes you wonder how many empty booze bottles are found behind the homes of "teetotallers."

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