Saturday, January 30, 2010

Great wines from ZAP

ZAP is the Grand Canyon of wine tastings. There's no way to experience everything, and you're certain to leave overwhelmed (in this case, drunkenly). With 250 wineries pouring nearly 1000 wines for thousands of visitors, you need a strategy.

This year, mine was to concentrate on single-vineyard wines from wineries I thought might be good. The flaw in this was that I tasted almost no wines in the affordable $10-$20 range. Single-vineyard Zin goes for $25 and up these days, and those wines aren't selling, so for many consumers this list is completely beside the point.

Why did I do it? Hedonism. I wanted to taste the best Zins from the best places from the best producers. Why not? It's my tongue, not yours.

How did I choose the wine booths to visit? Anybody who had made wines I liked in the past, I tried them again (that's me and Kent Rosenblum in the photo). That's a lot of wineries. I also tried all the new wineries who were making single-vineyard wines. (I have something to say about this worthy of its own post, so I'll write it tomorrow.)

I skipped wineries I haven't liked previously (sorry). I didn't bother with "brand" wines -- wines with cute names made from grapes from all over the place. I mostly avoided corporate wines, though I'll say again that Ravenswood's single-vineyard Zins are, as a group, still as good and as interesting as anyone's in California.

I tasted a LOT more wines than the ones listed below, but in order to keep moving, if I didn't think a wine was worth 90 points I didn't spend any time on it.

A few general observations:

* 2007 was a very good year for California Zinfandel. Dry Creek Valley in particular had an excellent '07; I didn't realize this until I looked though the list of wines I liked best.

* I'm still not a big fan of Sierra Foothills Zins or Lodi Zins, not in this league anyway. Napa Zins are a good bet.

* Balance is coming back into vogue, at least at the high end. Just last year I wrote "hot and sweet" in my notebook a lot, even in this price range. Not this year.

* However, spiciness is still an exception, which is a shame because that's a taste characteristic I like in Zins. Most winemakers seem to be going for all fruit and shying away from pepperiness.

* That said, I have to stipulate that I'm not the average Zin drinker. Matt Cline told me on Friday that he once took a stuck-fermentation wine to ZAP to demonstrate what could go wrong with Zinfandel, but because the flawed wine was sweet, everybody loved it. I was thinking of that at one booth where I grimaced at an unpleasantly hot and sweet wine and a woman next to me said, "This is my favorite wine so far!" So if you like your wines big and sweet, you're wasting your time reading my notes.

* Here's my favorite ZAP moment: Hagafen Cellars was pouring a reserve labeled "Prix," not Hagafen. I asked if 'pricks' [rhymes with Trix] was a different winery. Taken aback, the winery rep huffed, "We call it 'pree' [as in Grand Prix] when it's our reserve wine." I chuckled. "Oh, thaaat's how you pronounce it. Of course it is!" Good luck with that one. Just remember, Prix aren't for kids -- unless you're a priest (you know, 'cause they have the communion wine. Of COURSE that's what I meant.)

Moving right along, here are the wines I liked best:

Bedrock Wine Company Bedrock Vineyard Heirloom Sonoma Valley 2008 (NA): Intense blackberry, dense but not rich, with pretty violet notes and some white pepper. Leaves a lovely blackberry finish. Bedrock Wine Co. is the first project for Morgan Twain-Peterson, the young prodigy son of Ravenswood winemaker Joel Peterson. The Petersons own the vineyard, which is a mix of more-than-100-year-old Zinfandel vines planted by George Hearst and a grab bag of whatever other black grapes were popular in the late 1800s. This is a field blend, and a great one. 92

Bedrock Wine Company Lorenzo's Heirloom Dry Creek Valley 2008 (NA): Complex wine with great black and red fruit and some pepper. Interesting old-vine field blend, mostly Zinfandel with Carignane and other mixed blacks. 91

Bella Vetta Jack's Cabin Rockpile Zinfandel 2006 ($35): Strong minerality anchors this wine, which also offers plenty of Blackberry and raspberry and a nice cocoa note. Tannic on the finish. 91

Bradford Mountain Winery Grist Vineyard Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2006 ($34): Packed with great blackberry fruit, it's intense but not hot. Good acidity keeps it lively. 91

Brazin Cellars Fall Creek Vineyard Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2007 ($24): Superb value in a single-vineyard Zin; best in its class at the Chronicle Wine Competition, and it showed well again at ZAP. Nice raspberry fruit, quite spicy, well-balanced, and pretty blueberry on long finish. 94

Brazin Cellars Monte Rosso Sonoma Valley Zinfandel 2007 ($34): Slightly baked cherry fruit with light tannins and a long finish that elevates it. 90

Brazin Cellars Sommer Vineyard Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2007 ($22): Fairly straightforward blackberry fruit, pleasant and easy to love. 90

Carol Shelton Wines Wild Thing Cox Vineyard Mendocino County 2006 ($28): A spicy wine with cherry fruit and notes of cinnamon and chile pepper. Made with uninoculated yeast, hence the name (sorry, Mitch Williams fans). 91

DH Gustafson Family Vineyards Estate Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2007 ($36): Intense blackberry with a nice cocoa note. This new winery was built by a Minnesota construction magnate atop a mountain and is architecturally and visually stunning. It's nice to see that the young vines are as impressive as the site. 90

Dashe Cellars Florence Vineyard Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2007 ($32): Nice blueberry fruit, medium weight, straightforward for Dashe, but in a pleasurable way. 90

Dashe Cellars Todd Brothers Ranch Old Vines Alexander Valley Zinfandel 2007 ($32): Packed with deep dark fruit, yet an elegant mouthfeel. Density without heaviness. Excellent. Michael Dashe said, "At the house we're drinking Todd Brothers '99s. They age so well." I believe it, but you don't need to wait. 93

Downing Family Vineyards Fly by Night H&H Vineyard Oakville Zinfandel 2006 ($24): Well-balanced wine with blueberry and blackberry fruit and some appealing earthiness from a CCOF-certified organic vineyard. 91

Frank Family Vineyards Napa Valley Zinfandel 2007 ($37): Full-bodied wine with dense blueberry fruit and plush tannins. 91

Hendry Block 28 Napa Valley Zinfandel 2006 ($30): Dark cherry and mocha fruit with thick tannins; nice blackberry on the finish. 90

Klinker Brick Winery Old Ghost Old Vine Lodi Zinfandel 2007 (NA): An unusual wine, savory with a salted pork note, though there's plenty of cherry fruit. Some oak on the finish. Give it a couple years in the cellar. 91

Kokomo Winery Mounts Vineyard Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2007 ($27): Mounts Vineyard grapes are naturally high pH, and nobody handles them better than Kokomo winemaker Erik Miller. You get delicious blueberry fruit, ripe and soft, but not flabby. Curvaceous, if you will. 91

Kokomo Winery Perotti Vineyard Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2007 ($34): Long-lasting taste with intertwining cherry, pepper and earth flavors. 91

Kokomo Winery Timber Crest Vineyards Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2007 ($32): My favorite of a very strong lineup. Blackberry fruit with great acidity, so much that it hints of citrus. Tremendous balance makes this an excellent food wine that you could drink right away or cellar for a decade. Masterful. 94

Outpost Estate Wines Howell Mountain Zinfandel 2007 (NA): Spicy and peppery, with cherry fruit in the background. A savory finish. Excellent food wine that promises to stay interesting throughout the bottle. 93

Papapietro Perry Timbercrest Farms Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2007 ($45): Couldn't be more different from the Kokomo wine from the same vineyard, but also excellent. Spicy, even briny, wine with raspberry fruit and lots of pepper. Complex and savory, with a long finish. 92

Peachy Canyon Winery Especial Paso Robles Zinfandel 2007 ($40): Made from a block of vines in the Mustang Springs Vineyard that are clones from the original Peachy Canyon Vineyard. A very good wine in the big style, with blackberry fruit, a violet note and an appealing jamminess on the finish. 91

Pellegrini Family Vineyards Eight Cousins Vineyard Russian River Valley Zinfandel 2007 ($26): Black plum and cherry; all fruit with an elegant mouthfeel. 90

Perry Creek Winery Altitude 2401 Fair Play Farms Sierra Foothills Zinfandel 2006 ($28): Nice cherry fruit with some earthiness. Well-managed tannins. 90

R&B Cellars Zydeco Bingham Ranch Napa Valley Zinfandel 2007 ($29): Nice ripe cherry fruit with an interesting smoky note; long finish. 91

Ravenswood Bedrock Vineyard Sonoma Valley Zinfandel 2007 ($50): Winemaker Joel Peterson owns this vineyard, and he and his son Morgan make very different wines from it. Here, Joel goes for fruit and gets it -- nice black cherry with a pretty, perfumey note, great acidity and a long finish, albeit with tannins that imply a few years in the cellar would be a good thing. 92

Ravenswood Dickerson Vineyard Napa Valley Zinfandel 2007 ($35): Dense, with great cherry fruit and intensity, and a very long finish. Still pretty tannic and needs some cellar time, but the history of this wine shows it should drink well for more than a decade. 94

Ridge Benito Dusi Ranch Paso Robles Zinfandel 2007 ($30): Straightforward but delightful, this wine delivers very bright cherry fruit with some pomegranate. Soft tannins on the long finish. 91

Rock Wall Wine Company Monte Rosso Reserve Sonoma Valley Zinfandel 2007 (NA): Clean cherry and raspberry fruit with good balance and plenty of fruit on the finish. 90

Rubicon Estate Edizione Pennino Rutherford Zinfandel 2007 ($45): Blackberry fruit intially, turns a little brambly, as if you can taste the berry skins. A hint of mocha on the nice finish. 91

Sbragia Family Vineyards Gino's Vineyard Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2006 ($28): Interesting wine with cherry fruit, some bacon fat and baked bread and a long finish. 92

Scott Harvey Wines Jana Old Vine Napa Valley Zinfandel 2005 ($35): Made from century-old vines from the Korte Ranch north of St. Helena. This wine delivers nice ripe cherry fruit with notes of cherry tobacco. Excellent balance. 93

Scott Harvey Wines Vineyard 1869 Amador County Zinfandel 2007 ($45): A few other wineries make wine from this vineyard -- which holds the oldest known vines in the state -- but Scott Harvey always does the best job. He should; he used to live there. This complex, potent wine has flavors of cherry, cinnamon and earth and a lingering finish. 92

Seghesio Family Vineyards Home Ranch Alexander Valley Zinfandel 2008 ($36): Always a favorite of mine, this wine offers dense blackberry fruit with a pretty violet note and nice acidity. 92

Seghesio Family Vineyards Rockpile Zinfandel 2008 ($36): Pretty yet packed with fruit, this wine has dense black cherry with the slate minerality and good acidity that Rockpile is famous for. Superb. 94

Storr's Winery Rusty Ridge Santa Clara County Zinfandel 2006 (NA): Balanced and elegant, with nice cherry fruit and some chocolate on the finish. 92

Three Wine Company Evangelho Vineyard Contra Costa County 2007 (NA): Nice blackberry fruit with some baked earth and a pretty violet note. 91

Working hard at ZAP

In some jobs, people get their hands dirty.

Here, Alder Yarrow (right) of Vinography and I show that we put our mouth where our, er ... we're willing to lick where angels fear to ... um ...

Lots of Zinfandels, so few punchlines. Tasting notes to come, but I will say right now there's a very good reason we're standing in front of the Kokomo Wines booth at ZAP with our tongues hanging out.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Wines to look for at ZAP

San Francisco's biggest public wine tasting -- ZAP -- is, like many of today's Zinfandels, completely over the top. With 250 wineries pouring, it's impossible to try them all.

I'm here to help. I got a sneak preview Thursday night at Good Eats, my favorite part of the annual Zin fest, in which about 50 wineries poured a couple of Zins each. Every winery paired with a different gourmet food purveyor, making it not just an orgy of overdrinking, but a total pork fest, and I mean that in the best possible way.

I can't comment on the 200 wineries that will be pouring on Saturday who weren't at Good Eats. But these were my favorites from the 50 who were there, and they will also be around at the main event.

Artezin Wines: 2006 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel

Carol Shelton Wines: 2006 Wild Thing Mendocino County Zinfandel

Edmeades Winery: 2007 Ciapusci Vineyard Mendocino County Zinfandel

Scott Harvey Wines: 2005 Jana Old Vine Napa Valley Zinfandel; 2007 Vineyard 1869 Amador County Zinfandel
(That's Scott and wife Jana in the photo)

Klinker Brick Winery: 2005 and 2007 Old Ghost Old Vine Lodi Zinfandel

Outpost Estate: 2007 Howell Mountain Zinfandel

Peachy Canyon Winery: 2007 Especial Paso Robles Zinfandel

R&B Cellars: 2007 Zydeco Bingham Ranch Napa Valley Zinfandel

Ravenswood: 2007 (and 1997) Dickerson Vineyard Napa Valley Zinfandel

Ridge Vineyards: 2007 Geyserville

Rock Wall Wine Company: 2007 Monte Rosso Reserve Sonoma County Zinfandel

Storr's Winery: 2006 Rusty Ridge Santa Clara County Zinfandel

A few observations:
* Kent Rosenblum sold his eponymous winery to Diageo and is now making wines with his daughter at Rock Wall, while still representing Rosenblum Winery at events. He had to walk back and forth across the hall Thursday to pour on both sides. Both wineries made a 2007 from Monte Rosso Vineyard. For me, the Rock Wall wine was significantly better. I found the Rosenblum Winery version to have a cough syrupy finish, while the Rock Wall wine had cleaner, brighter cherry fruit. Follow the man, not his name.

* Speaking of which, the pourer at Rock Wall said to me, because I started with the Monte Rosso and moved backward, "You're going in the wrong order." I said, and fully believe, "Zinfandel drinkers are never wrong."

* In a different outcome of corporation-swallows-winery, Ravenswood continues to impress me with its single-vineyard Zinfandels. The 2007 Dickerson Napa Valley might have been my favorite wine of the night: dense, with great fruit and intensity, and a very long finish. The wine is still pretty tannic and needs some cellar time, but the beautiful 1997 Dickerson that winemaker Joel Peterson poured alongside it proved that it should be worth the wait.

* Normally I prefer Ridge Geyserville to Lytton Springs, and this was the case again Thursday. Geyserville is the most elegant of Zinfandels (it's sometimes not listed as Zin because it's a field blend that drops below 75% Zin some years) and therefore should be food-friendly. That said, with the outstanding Filet Mignon Steak Tartare served up by Lark Creek Steak, the Lytton Springs was better, because the steak tamed that wine's tougher tannins. This puts the lie to the idea that the elegant wine is always better with food. (I'd still rather have a bottle of the Geyserville, though).

* R&B Cellars makes a very nice $12 Zin from Lodi, the 2007 Swingsville, an old Bargain Wines favorite of mine. But if I'm not paying for the bottle, give me that single-vineyard Napa Zin.

* I tried a Zinfandel I disliked as overripe -- Port-like, raisiny and a little sweet -- and then tried it again with Moroccan-spiced lamb, and suddenly it was actually pretty good. Maybe that's the secret to rescuing over-the-top wines: throw lamb at them.

* I get tired of reading older wine writers complaining about how Zinfandel was better back when they were younger. Yes, there are sweet, hot, over-the-top Zins. But you can spit them out. I found plenty of Zins to enjoy at this event, and there will be 5 times as many wineries pouring Saturday. If you can't find something to like there, you can't call yourself a wine lover.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A prince of wine moves to sake

Claudio LoCascio won't like it, but it's fair to describe him as a prince of the wine industry. His father, Leonardo LoCascio, founded and still runs Winebow, one of the leading U.S. importers of Italian wine and a player in wine from all over the world.

Claudio, 23, is the youngest of Leonardo's four children. The older three were not interested in taking over the wine business, at least not yet (it's still possible as Leonardo was a vice president at Citibank before founding Winebow).

Claudio wasn't either, at first. He majored in economics at Dartmouth and spent his internship working at a private equity fund.

"I just hated it," Claudio said, over raw oysters at Swan Oyster Depot (his choice of restaurant). "You spend 9 to 9 at your desk, eat lunch at your desk. The priorities are all wrong."

Claudio minored in Japanese, more out of travel-lust than ambition. "I wanted to study somewhere I hadn't been," he said, and if you look through Winebow's portfolio, that eliminates just about the entire wine-producing world.

He ended up in Chiba, a city that neighbors Tokyo, and it's there that he discovered sake. I don't want to overstate the epiphany: It wasn't like True Sake's Beau Timken, who discovered sake in South Africa and really hasn't drunk anything else since. It was more like, this is better and a lot different than the sake I've had at sushi bars in the U.S.

"The most popular sakes in America tend to be good sushi sakes -- the fruitier, more floral daiginjos and ginjos," Claudio says. "I like a heartier, earthier sake. I like that kind of wine as well. What I like is to have sake with a meal. I cook at home, and I make hearty food. My mother is German, so that's her influence. I like sakes that have balance and have some character."

Still, it wasn't Claudio's idea to start importing sake. It's not exactly a booming market in the U.S., not like wine. Personally I think premium sake is a great drink and superb value, but it's still generally found only in Japanese restaurants and supermarkets.

Leonardo called Claudio and said he was going to vacation in Japan, and would Claudio like to meet him in Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island? Since Hokkaido has perhaps the best seafood in the world (I still drool remembering the huge, sweet scallops), that was an easy yes.

Leonardo told Claudio he was thinking of adding sake to Winebow's portfolio, and naturally he had a bigger gameplan in mind.

"Just in New York, there's maybe 100 Japanese-owned restaurants, most of them high end," Claudio says. "They have very few Italian wines at all."

The idea was, a sake portfolio would get Winebow in the door at Japanese and other Asian restaurants, where its salesman could then talk about improving the wine selection (which, in most cases, isn't hard to do). Italian whites in particular are excellent with raw fish, certainly better than the mass-produced Chardonnays offered by so many places that don't pay attention to their wine list.

Soon after graduation, Claudio became the sake brand manager for Winebow.

It's unusual, but not unique, for a wine company to import sake. Sausalito's Vine Connections has the bizarre combination of Argentine Malbecs and really outstanding sakes. But most sake in the U.S. is imported by specialists like World Sake Imports (the folks behind the annual Joy of Sake show), Wine of Japan, and others.

Even more so than with wine, sake producers value long-term relationships, and many of the great ones were already taken. But Claudio did have the advantage of looking for a different taste profile than most importers. He also decided, initially at least, to narrow his geographic focus.

Almost all of Winebow's sake producers are located in the rural northern prefecture of Akita, which is well-respected for producing hearty, complex sakes. The one exception, Ichishima Shuzo in Niigata, produces the most beginner-friendly sake in Winebow's portfolio, the light, slightly sweet Silk, a junmai that's reminiscent of a German Riesling. I wouldn't hesitate to pour this for anyone who hasn't tried sake before.

I'll be honest -- most of the Akita prefecture portfolio was rough for my tastes. I confess that I tend to best like "wine-like" sakes, particularly ginjos with a fruity character. The one sake I really liked was Tenju Shuzo's Chokaisan Junmai Daiginjo, which was probably where Claudio's sake tastes and mine intersect: It's rich and full-flavored for a daiginjo, with flavors of ripe pear, herbal and licorice notes and a very long finish.

Claudio says he hasn't had any trouble selling sake despite the fact that he doesn't look particularly Japanese. "I've done a lot of dinners," he said. "What the sake industry needs is a national brand. You have no idea how many tastings I've been to where people say, 'I've had this before,' but they didn't remember until they taste it."

I'm rooting for Winebow to succeed in improving the market penetration of sake for a number of reasons. The sake industry in Japan is in crisis, as most young Japanese spurn it as a drink of their grandparents' generation in favor of beer and shochu. Sake brewing is such hard work that few people want to go into the profession. Yet quality is higher than it has ever been because of advances in technology. The U.S. market is vital for keeping small family-owned breweries alive.

At the same time, the U.S. market needs to do a better job of presenting sake when it's fresh -- and not overcharging for it. Hopefully a company with Winebow's reach can help here as well.

I've had the dubious opportunity to taste a lot of year-old sake, and let me tell you, with very few exceptions sake needs to be drunk within 6 to 12 months or it's just not any good. I'm talking about the difference between a fresh and lively quaff, and nail-polish remover. Yet too many sakes I see in restaurants are too old, or have been open too long (sake will last a couple of weeks once opened.)

"It takes a month to get sake to New York from Japan," Claudio says. "We're working on direct containers to California."

As for the prices, it's outrageous how much markup some restaurants (Napa Valley's Go Fish, for example) take on sake. They can't get away with charging 5 times retail on a bottle of wine because people have some idea of the price. But with sake, it's gouge away.

"The vast majority of Japanese restaurants in America are not Japanese-owned," Claudio says. "They're owned by Chinese and Koreans and that turns it from a work of pride into a business. They know they can sell cheap sake at a big markup and no one will know about it."

Yet the sake list isn't necessarily good at Japanese-owned restaurants either. In short, there are very few places where you can have a few different interesting glasses of sake. I'd like to name an exception here in San Francisco, but I cannot.

"The Japanese restaurants want people to focus on the food," Claudio says. "They don't want the sake to overshadow the sushi."

All of that said, Claudio says -- and if it's fresh, I agree -- "I would much rather spend $75 (retail) on a sake than on a wine. There's no money spent on marketing. It's all going into the bottle."

Unfortunately, while great sake is a bargain, it's still not cheap. Claudio thinks the point of inflection, where you go from taking your chances to having great chances, is $25 to $30 retail. It's tough to get people to spend that when $12 wines are all the rage -- and $12 sakes, generally, aren't so great.

But if you're willing to spend $25 a bottle, Claudio suggests that sake will go with way more foods than you might have imagined.

"If you're having spaghetti with clam sauce, a honjozo would go well with it," he says. "If you're having pizza, I'd have fuutsu. It's hearty."

Monday, January 25, 2010

Drink like a pro

Do professional drinkers get drunk?

It's a good question, and one we tend to shy away from answering. The answer is yes, of course -- but professionally.

Wine critics spit when doing official tastings. But we drink, too, probably more than anyone other than serious alcoholics. It's not unusual for a party of 6 wine industry folks to put away 6 bottles of wine -- after starting with cocktails. I've seen people leave to get a beer afterwards.

So then the question is, how do people who drink for a living avoid the health and legal problems associated with drinking?

And, is there any way that professional drinking behavior can help the average drinker do the same?

I think so. Here are a few keys.

1) Drink early, drink often! Your taste buds are freshest early in the day; this is why most wineries conduct sample testing first thing in the morning. I'm not suggesting wine with breakfast (cereal is difficult to pair) but why not have a glass (or a cocktail) with lunch? We've gotten puritanical about mid-day drinking, but you're better off having one (1!) drink at lunch, one drink when you get off work, and one drink at dinner than three drinks in a row. To me, it's fun to be slightly relaxed or mildly buzzed, but not much fun to be polluted, which I always regret the next day.

2) Drink plenty of water. No professional tasting happens without lots of room temperature bottled water. Room temperature makes it easier to drink a lot, quickly. You have to keep drinking water even when you don't feel thirsty. Make the waiters keep refilling your water glass, and tell them "no ice please." You'll be much happier the next day -- this is the best way to avoid hangovers.

3) Avoid sugary drinks. You never see professional drinkers having a Coke between rounds. Thirst means your body needs water, not sugar.

4) It's not how you feel, it's how you act that counts. If you can't restrain your behavior, stop drinking. Now. Don't finish that sip.
It's expected, at a wine dinner, to be more cheerful and talkative as the night goes on. But if you do something really embarrassing -- disrobe, punch someone, technicolor yawn -- people will talk about it for years, and the wine industry is a small world.
Before becoming a professional drinker, I was never famous for my self-control: I usually speak my mind, regardless of the consequences. But there's a huge difference between speaking your mind and acting out. Once you feel yourself about to do the latter, you have to stop.

5) Eat while you drink. One advantage about writing about wine, as opposed to cocktails, is that food is always served. Coffee won't slow down your drunkenness -- it will just make you drunk and jittery -- but food will.

6) Sniff everything before you drink it, even at dinner, just as you would if you were doing a professional tasting. For one thing, this builds your anticipation. You also get more nuances from smelling a wine than drinking it, so if you haven't smelled it first, your first gulp is just imbibing liquor, not flavor.

7) Sip, don't gulp. I like to drink, don't get me wrong. But if I can get 20 sips out of the same glass where someone else gets only 10, I'm enjoying it twice as much.

8) Don't take two rapid drinks in succession. Let the finish play out before you enjoy the next drink.

9) Plan ahead for how to get home. I rarely drive home from an event, but I know many people do. They are the unlucky ones who stop drinking an hour before the end of the meal and forgo the dessert wines.
If I do have to drive, I'm not ashamed to say, "I'm not ready. We have to sit here awhile." Be honest with yourself -- if you're not sure you're able to drive, then don't.
I like a digestif, but they're even better at home.

10) If you don't like a drink, don't finish it. Waiters are always surprised when I leave nearly full glasses of wine or cocktails I've paid for. I'm surprised that the default use of booze is to finish it even if you don't like it. Why? Do you need to be more drunk? Do you need the extra calories?
You can only drink a finite amount of alcohol in a year; we may not know what the limit is, but we know there is one. Why waste part of your allotment on something you don't like?

11) Don't let teetotallers tell you how to drink. One of the reasons the U.S. has such a poor relationship with alcohol is that we still have plenty of puritans who considers any drinking evil. I was shocked to learn that the CDC considers "regular drinkers" anyone who had 12 drinks in the previous year! In France, you wouldn't be a "regular drinker" if you only had 12 drinks per month.
This is why our alcoholism rate is high, and why young adults nearly kill themselves by drinking 21 shots on their 21st birthday. It's not just the alcohol -- it's the sanctimony. Some tight-cheeked Bible thumper, who doesn't realize Jesus turned water into wine, tells people drinking is a sin, so plenty of people don't incorporate drinking into their daily life in a sustainable way, and only go at it when they've decided it's time to sin.
Wine is a gift from God; it's all over the Bible. Leave grapes alone in a barrel and they will turn to wine by themselves. If that's not part of God's plan, I don't know what is.
Take your advice on drinking from professional drinkers, from your physician (ask if she or he has a glass of wine with dinner), from medical experts. But not from teetotallers. You wouldn't ask somebody who doesn't ice skate to teach you a triple-axle. Think about it -- preferably with a glass of wine in your hand.

Friday, January 22, 2010

ZAP ticket winner: Sex or the single man?

Thanks to the folks who participated in my contest giving away two free $59 tickets to the ZAP public Zinfandel tasting, the biggest wine tasting of the year in San Francisco.

I'm going to announce the winner later today. Before doing so, I thought I'd ask for your opinions.

I confess that I'm not tech-savvy enough to run any kind of poll that would preclude ballot-stuffing. Hell, even Dr. Vino's not tech-savvy enough to do that, and he's a Dr.! So there's no actual vote here -- you have to write a comment on which guy should win, and why.

The contest asked people to describe their best Zinfandel-drinking experience in 100 words or less. Here are the finalists.

Casey wrote,

The first time I met who would later become my father in law, he shared a bottle of Martinelli Jackass Hill Zin with us. I remember clearly because I was new to wine and though Martinelli made sparkling grape juice. That night I sexed up his daughter in their guest room who like the wine, was luscious and full bodied.
We eventually married started our wine cellar and visit Martinelli every year.
Alan wrote,

The first serious wine that I purchased and enjoyed was the Rosenblum Zinfandel Richard Sauret Vineyard 2002. I was in the process of getting divorced, living in a hotel room, and wanted some wine to help drown my sorrows. Went to the local BevMo, browsed the shelves, and bought this wine. It was fantastic and started my new "love affair" with Zinfandels. We've been happy together ever since.
It's an interesting choice: Sex or the single man? Though I guess Alan could argue that he's just as attached as Casey, and in fact he's attached to the fermented grape itself.

Please comment below, and if Casey and Alan are reading this, now is a good time to get in touch with me. Good luck!

Update: Well, it's unanimous with commenters both here and on Facebook; it seems sex and a happy ending conquer all. Casey, please make your profile public long enough for me to figure out who you are. As for whether you take your bride or your father-in-law to ZAP, that's up to you.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Two stories from the Right Bank

Though just yesterday I was profiled as blogger by Tom Wark, tomorrow I'm back in print, with a story on Saint-Emilion in the Los Angeles Times. (That's Hubert de Bouard de Laforest of Chateau Angelus, at right, in front of his winery)

On the same visit to France in October, I got to spend a delightful hour in the company of always gracious Christian Moueix (below, standing in his laboratory), and you can read all about that at Wine Review Online.

So that's my double dose of Right Bank links for the day. For me, 2010 is starting out to be an excellent vintage, but we'll just have to see how it develops. I certainly hope for a long finish, with good fruits and no bitterness.

(Oh man, how long can this tortured wine analogy go on?)

I wish I could say I felt joyful tonight, but the Massachusetts Senate result has me pretty morose. Apparently the Democrat ran a lousy race, even calling Curt Schilling a Yankee fan when he dissed her. So maybe the voters genuinely picked the better candidate. I'm trying to feel a positive spin on it because I now foresee absolutely nothing getting done in Congress for, what, ever? Maybe? The Republicans have made it clear they will be purely obstructionist, but I don't see the Democrats losing 10 seats this year so it's not like the Republicans will take over and push their own agenda either.

I'm very depressed over this. I didn't love the health-care reform bill, but nobody did, and I strongly believe -- and have for years -- that health care is our biggest issue and we have to address it. This probably kills the whole bill, ends a year's work, and just as when Hillary Clinton failed, takes health-care reform off the table for more than a decade. I'll tell you who's partying tonight -- health insurance companies.

I'm rambling here, but if the Republicans were a responsible party of conservative views, this one election wouldn't matter much. We could use such a party. But the Republicans of Michael Steele and Rush Limbaugh are not that, they've become little kids who just say no to everything. Unfortunately that does represent the political views of about 30% of Americans. And with the tea-party morons on the rise, things will just get worse.

On the bright side ... those Right Bank wines are still mighty tasty ...

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Fun with Fancy Food

If a new food product is in your local store, odds are it debuted at the Fancy Food Show first. That's why the annual three-day show in San Francisco is a must-see for people interested in food trends.

Maybe it's the economy, but this year's show has fewer exciting new products than years past. My guess is that chefs and inventors with a dream but no funding found it impossible to get angel investors behind them.

The best new product I discovered on my first day was "Le Foam," a lemon Dijon dressing sprayed from the top of a can like cheap whipped cream. It's lower in calories because it's foamy, and I hate it when my salad is saturated with dressing. The flavor was quite good, but I wish they had more flavors. That said, the product reps said I had the same reaction as everybody else: "What is that? How do you use it?" That doesn't bode well for its reception on supermarket shelves.

Without a lot of exciting new products to check out, I spent hours grazing samples from hundreds of purveyors of everything from real Osetra caviar (you have to practically beg for a small taste) to oddities like "vegetarian caviar," made from seaweed and flavored with fish extract so that vegetarians can't eat it anyway (I tried it and will reassure vegetarians that you're not missing anything.)

If nothing else, I rediscovered how much I love some items:
* Ortiz anchovies in olive oil -- so much better than boquerones because there's no vinegar to cut the salty fishiness
* Snake River Farms American wagyu hot dog, rich and meaty and so delicious
* Merguez sausage from Fabrique Delices, so earthy and lamby
* Lavender sea-salt chocolate from Eclipse Chocolat, my favorite of the dozens of chocolates I sampled
* Sence rose-flavored soda, a delicious, delicate drink which would probably be more widely distributed if the product rep wasn't such a snob. I thought my negative reaction to her last year was my fault, but this year when talking to her once again made me feel like a homeless person trying to try on wristwatches at Tiffany's, I realized it isn't me. It's just a $4 soda, lady -- get over yourself.

Which leads me to the most amusing part of the Fancy Food Show: Goofy products and goofy conversations about them. My favorite goofy product was some new age-guru's distilled water, marketed as "intention-charged water." (What if my intentions aren't good?)

This was my best goofy-product conversation:

"Cupless Joe" is instant coffee in gelatin capsules, the size of vitamins. You're supposed to swallow 4 of them with a cup of water in lieu of drinking a cup of coffee. The product rep told me these are useful in situations where you don't have time or opportunity to drink coffee.

Me: "So it's about the caffeine."
Cupless Joe rep: "No, it's coffee. It's just freeze-dried coffee."
Me: "So I put them in my mouth and add water and it becomes coffee in my mouth."
CJr: "No, it becomes coffee in your stomach."
Me: "So it is about the caffeine."
CJr: "No, it's just coffee. You get all the antioxidant benefits of coffee." She handed me a flier.

Wow, eating freeze-dried coffee as an antioxidant. What will they think of next? (If you're thinking resveratrol-infused chocolate bars, or pasta made of Cabernet Sauvignon grape skins, you're too late, somebody's done it.)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Sustainable: The latest word co-opted by corporate America

Call me naive, but I was genuinely looking forward to an official definition of "sustainable" winery.

We've screwed up "organic" already, "biodynamic" is weird religion, and "natural" is vague. So I had hopes that the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance could learn from previous mistakes and give us a useful term that would, in a nutshell, help consumers identify the good guys.

I am naive. The definition came out yesterday, and it's nearly worthless. Moreover, almost all of the 17 companies that already qualify are big corporations, including E. & J. Gallo Winery and Constellation Brands, the nation's two largest wine companies.

That means both Arbor Mist Strawberry White Zinfandel and Wild Vines Strawberry White Zinfandel are sustainable, but Adam Lee's single-vineyard Pinot Noirs at Siduri are not. Sean Thackrey's outdoor-fermented wines are not. Basically, almost all small-production wines made by people who care about the vines are now officially "not sustainable."

It's green-washing, plain and simple. The Wine Institute, which gets its funding from members based on their size, has chosen to allow 3 Blind Moose wines to wear a "sustainable" label so they can sell better to young shoppers with a twinge of social consciousness.

This is disappointing because in theory, "sustainable" is the most logical term for Earth-conscious wine production in the US.

"Organic" has two big flaws: you can't call a wine "organic" if it includes added sulfites, which are necessary to preserve its fresh fruit. And, unique to wine, if it's really rainy one year, a farmer might have to choose between spraying a little anti-mildew chemical and losing his organic certification for years, or losing his crop.

I actually prefer "biodynamic" to "organic" for US wines because it allows farmers a few mildew-control options, but at the same time, it is essentially a religious belief that demands farmers follow the cycles of the moon, bury cow horns full of dung, and that sort of thing.

"Sustainable" is perfect in theory for wine, in that it allows farmers to use minimal intervention in good years and take necessary steps in tougher ones. But with 3 Blind Moose wines already "sustainable," the term is compromised before it ever becomes a label sticker.

What does "sustainable" officially mean now, exactly? That's a good question, and not one to which the Wine Institute can provide a good answer (and I have asked, repeatedly). There are 227 "best management practices" on which wineries are supposed to grade themselves, as well as 58 "prerequisites."

I've plowed through some of these areas in what's available online and there are definite good points about the program. Wineries are required to examine their performance in areas they might not have considered before, like energy efficiency and ecosystem management. The basics, like soil management and pest management, are in there as well. I'm probably the only person who's going to write negatively about this program, because improving performance in all these areas -- from air quality to human resources -- is a good thing.

But the big problems just won't go away.

1) It's based on self-reporting.
2) You can keep a good rating by "improving" weak areas, rather than achieving definite targets.
3) It's easier for a big company to find the time to do the paperwork, and that's obvious by the list of giant companies that were in the pilot project. There are a few exceptions (good job, Honig Vineyard & Winery, Kunde Family Estate and Cooper-Garrod Estate Winery). But most of the list is behemoths*, including Diageo Chateau & Estate Wines, Meridian Vineyards and Concannon Vineyard (owned by The Wine Group, the 3rd largest US wine company).

* Conspicuous by its absence is Bronco Wine Company, makers of Two Buck Chuck, and easily the largest company not to participate. Owner Fred Franzia doesn't get along with the mainstream of the U.S. wine industry, having lost some nasty lawsuits, and that may be why. But a test of the usefulness of this initiative is whether there will be any pressure on Bronco to join the party.

4) The biggest problem of all is that "sustainable" is now impossible to explain quickly or understand easily. I have big problems with "organic," but I know basically what it means, and so does everybody else. Here's my best shot at quickly interpreting the new meaning of "sustainable" (feel free to use this, Wine Institute):

"Sustainable" means a wine company must document its attempts to continuously improve its performance in 227 areas, including some related to farming, the environment and community relations.

In other words, "sustainable" is well-meaning corporate-speak. That's not what I'm looking for when selecting a wine, and I suspect that most of America is with me on this. If you want a wine made by a winery that cares about the Earth, you'll have to stick with "biodynamic" or "organically grown grapes" (sigh) for now.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Great wines from the Chronicle Wine Competition

Last week I posted great value finds from tasting more than 350 wines as a judge at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

Here are a few other wines that were highlights of the week for me, in two categories:
1) Wines I really loved that are reasonably priced.
2) A couple of rare oddities that I might foolishly have turned my nose up at, had I not been asked to judge them.

First, the great wines. There's a strange theme here: all four would have been illegal in Europe, because the winery is in one AVA but the grapes (and the label listing) is from another. Sometimes Europeans don't know what they're missing.

Kendall-Jackson Grand Reserve Mendocino Sauvignon Blanc 2008 ($20): I guess those K-J people know how to make white wine, but they should have priced it 1 penny less. This wine is simply outstanding; intense passion fruit and lime flavors with good balance, a fine mouthfeel and a very long finish. It won the $20 and up Sauvignon Blanc category and would have easily won the $14 to $19.99 category -- which I was a category judge on -- had it been 0.05% cheaper. As it was easily the best Sauvignon Blanc out of 199 submitted, had it been listed in the cheaper category, I think it might have won best white wine overall. I voted for it.

Brazin Fall Creek Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2007 ($25): I voted for this as my red sweepstakes winner, meaning I thought it was the best red wine of the whole competition. It's spicy, with great fruit both black and red and complexity, as well as good balance. I don't know anything about this wine, but the winery usually makes Zin from Lodi, so maybe this was a small production one-off. In any case, I kept going back to it while tasting the other best of class winners, and I thought for varietal character, interest, deliciousness and price performance, this wine was tops. Hopefully you'll have two chances to try it, at ZAP on Jan. 30 (win free tickets here!) and the Chronicle competition's public tasting on Feb. 20.

Storrs Winery and Vineyards Two Creek Vineyard Santa Clara County Rhone Blend 2006 ($25): This vintage is apparently not on sale yet, as the Storrs website is still pushing the '05. It's a savory, spicy, interesting blend, reminiscent of a good Chateauneuf du Pape (not one of the '07 extraction monsters, if that's what you're thinking). Apparently the vineyards are dry farmed and produce only about 1 ton an acre, which makes this a very fair price. Santa Clara County has plenty of people wealthy enough to afford a $25 bottle even in a recession, so get thee to Storrs and support your local winery.

Quinta Cruz Bokisch Vineyard Mokelumne River (Lodi) Graciano 2007 ($28): This was in my top 5 wines from all the best of class winners, and was the "non-traditional" red varietal that most impressed me. Quinta Cruz is actually a second label for Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, but the grapes come from the Lodi vineyards of Markus Bokisch, a specialist in Spanish varietals. This wine had great red fruit and acidity, but what I liked best about it was that it had presence in the mouth without weightiness. A number of other judges mentioned how much they liked it, and it makes me wonder how close it came to winning the overall prize.

Now, the oddities. It's thrilling to taste what a winemaker committed to excellence can do with unusual fruits. At these prices, these wines are truly labors of love.

Goose Watch Winery Finger Lakes Diamond 2008 ($10): Click here to order

I had never tried Diamond before this one; it's a cross of two native American grapes, Concord and Iona. It's an intense, distinctive wine, with savory character, a Riesling-like diesel note, melon fruit and a bit of the "foxiness" that native American grapes are known for. I only sipped it a few times in trying it among all the other white Best of Class winners, so I don't know how well I would enjoy a whole bottle. But for $10, I'd certainly be motivated to find out.

Prairie Berry Winery South Dakota Red Ass Rhubarb ($17): Click here to order

This is one of the best fruit wines I've ever had. It's tangy, like having rhubarb pie, and its moderate sweetness means it could work well with dinner or dessert. Unless Oakland A's second baseman Mark Ellis starts hitting again, this wine could be my 2nd favorite thing about South Dakota, just behind watching untrained college kids wrestle alligators at Reptile Gardens.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Wine distributors choose Sarah Palin

In case you didn't have enough reasons to hate wine and spirits distributors, try this: For their 2010 convention, they chose Sarah Palin as keynote speaker.

You couldn't ask for a more clear statement on where the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) stand politically. This is the organization that fights actual free enterprise -- in the form of direct shipping -- at every opportunity, and they use social conservatives as their foot soldiers.

What better way to get Palin's angry, unwashed fans to support the WSWA in their ongoing fight to keep big business big, and prevent small wineries from getting their product to wine lovers?

Actually, though, I think this is a good thing for wine lovers. Here's why.

Few people in the wine industry except Tom Wark have the courage to criticize WSWA. The distributors are just too powerful to irritate, and they don't even have to take action to destroy a brand.

All Southern Wine & Spirits needs to use is inaction: its portfolio is so large that if its salespeople don't carry samples of a certain brand out to retailers, sales will plummet without anyone really knowing why.

This is why wine lovers should fight the three-tier system. In a state like California, where wineries can sell directly to stores without a middleman, we enjoy fantastic wine selections even at tiny local shops. But in most states, where wines must go through a distributor because of state law, WSWA members act like funnels with sticky sides that attract $100 bills. Distributors winnow the tens of thousands of wines available in this country to just a few hundred that they favor, often because they're getting a legal kickback for selling it.

Whenever a state legislature considers modernizing the system to allow free enterprise, though, the WSWA claims teenagers will order wine over the Internet, get drunk, have sex, and become pregnant. You might think I'm exaggerating, but that's an actual ad campaign the WSWA ran against direct wine shipping in the Northeast U.S.

Doesn't that campaign sound exactly like the sort of thing Sarah Palin would say? She's a natural for this job!

The average citizen doesn't really understand three-tier distribution -- hell, the average wine geek doesn't understand it -- so it's hard to get emotional about it.

But those of us with an IQ over 100 understand Sarah Palin. We know where she stands, and it's not with us, unless we're standing on a publicly funded Bridge to Nowhere holding a shotgun and looking at Russia.

So let's do all we can to publicize the connection. The WSWA hearts Sarah Palin. Sarah Palin speaks for wine distributors. If you like Sarah Palin, you'll love the WSWA. But if you don't, maybe you need to look at the company she's keeping.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Free ZAP tickets!

Hey Zinfandel lovers, I've got two free tickets to ZAP to give away!

This is San Francisco's biggest public wine tasting, and one of the biggest in the world -- 250 producers pouring Zinfandel at Fort Mason. The tickets sell for $59 each, so this is a $118 value.

The tasting details:
Fort Mason Center, San Francisco
Saturday, Jan. 30
2 -- 5 p.m. (These are non-member, public entry tickets)
Unlimited wine tasting is free, and you keep the glass.
No real food provided, though there will be free bread and cheese, and usually free coffee (helpful after all that Zin).
Parking not included; limited free parking available nearby (I always find it, but you're on your own). Consider taking public transport. I spit everything I sample and I still usually have to rest in a coffee shop for 2 or 3 hours before driving.
I am NOT RESPONSIBLE for you drinking too much Zinfandel and making a fool of yourself. Use the spit buckets!

More details about ZAP can be found here.
Now, here are the contest details. It's really simple: Post a comment below describing your best Zinfandel-drinking experience. I'm going to limit the entries to 100 words, and I will be strict about that -- if you post 125 words, even if you break it up into two comments and move me to tears, you will not win.

If you prefer to write in Japanese, you are welcome to do so, but because you can say more with fewer characters, I'm going to limit you to 75 words. No other languages accepted, sorry.

I thought I'd try to set an example with my own best Zinfandel experience. This is 96 words:

When I lived in Japan, one year on my birthday I was feeling lonely and homesick. Somebody recommended a California-style fusion restaurant, and though the term is overused today, it sounded just perfect then, because at the time the main American restaurant choices in Tokyo were Denny's and McDonald's. The night was rainy and cold, and the restaurant was in a concrete basement, with bare walls; I felt chilly in body and soul. But they had Ridge Geyserville, an elegant, terroir-driven Zinfandel blend I have always loved. I ordered a bottle and it tasted of home.
You don't have to register for anything to enter, but if you're not logged into gmail or blogger to ID yourself, I leave it up to you to let me know some way to identify you if you win.

Deadline for entries is Wednesday, Jan. 20 at midnight Dry Creek Valley time. I will announce the finalists on Friday, Jan. 22. Good luck, and remember: drinking Zinfandel will not actually make you more creative, but it might make you feel like you are, and that's worthwhile too.

Friday, January 8, 2010

A great cheap Chardonnay -- but where can you buy it?

The overall results are in from the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, and I won't list them here because you can get them from the source.

While I liked the overall sweepstakes winners, I would rather highlight some of the great bargain finds I personally blind-tasted.

For me, the best QPR (quality-price ratio) wine of the whole competition was the very first one I tasted, an $8.99 Chardonnay that was toasty with good lemon and apple fruit and excellent balance. This morning I tasted it up against Chards that cost up to 10 times as much, and I think it held its own. There were 8 price categories of Chardonnay, and the only Best of Class Chards I thought were clearly better cost $26, $35 and $95.

Turns out the $8.99 superstar was ...

drum roll ...

Motos Liberty California Chardonnay 2008!

And you say, what? I never heard of that.

Well, no wonder. It's a label started in August by the younger generation of the Franzia family, as in the folks behind Two Buck Chuck. I have to credit these guys, they do know good value.

What I don't know yet is where you can buy it. I spoke to managing partner Joey Franzia tonight and he said he expects it to be in a major California chain soon, but it's not there yet. It is apparently in a few smaller wine shops, so grab it if you see it.

I have to add one caution: There were, apparently, two batches of this wine made. I'm sorry to add this hedge, but this means that when you do find it, it might not be exactly the same as the wine I tasted. However, both batches were made by one of Bronco's winemakers, John Allbaugh, who knows what he's doing.

I'm going to write in more detail about this wine soon, but for tonight I want to quickly share some other excellent bargain wines I discovered in the blind tastings; wines that didn't win overall sweepstakes awards, but might win best QPR awards if such were given.

Korbel Brut Rosé ($11): I have always loved this wine, which got best of class for semi-dry sparkling. I voted for it as best overall sparkling over the eventual winner, a J Vineyards Brut Rosé ($35) that I think only won because conceptually, most judges didn't want to vote for a semi-dry bubbly first. When the J was announced as the winner, several judges within earshot of me said, "That was a rosé?" I think if judges had more carefully read the description of the dry sparkling, and had less bias against the semi-dry, this wine would have won best overall sparkling wine.

Cycles Gladiator Central Coast Syrah 2008 ($9.99): This is another wine I've been a fan of in the past, and it's great to see it rewarded with a Best of Class in a blind tasting. It wasn't the best Syrah -- the Clary Ranch Sonoma Coast Syrah 2006 ($28) was awesome. But the Cycles Gladiator was the best under-$10 Best of Class red that I tasted.

Windmill Estates Lodi Petite Sirah 2007 ($12): This wine was so smooth, with such great mouthfeel, that I considered putting it in my top 3 overall. I think it really delivers what you want in a Petite Sirah -- rich fruit, great mouthfeel, easy satisfaction.

Wild Vines Frutezia California Strawberry White Zinfandel ($4.99): Here's a Gallo product, with strawberry flavor added to Zinfandel grapes, that none of the professional wine writers (including myself) would have put in our mouths had we seen the label. I tasted it in the "fruit wine" category, where it's kind of a ringer, and we all loved it -- it's refreshing, fruity but not sweet, a great porch wine for a hot day. It didn't get a sweepstakes award because it wound up in the Dessert category, where it doesn't really belong. But all the judges around me at the sweepstakes mentioned how much they liked it. Honestly, I'm not going to recommend it to my wine-geek friends. But don't knock it 'til you've tried it.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Syrah's strongest price point: $10 - $20

Don't spend too much money on American Syrah. That's a lesson I've learned from judging at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

My panel today had 80 Syrahs priced between $30 and $40. It was a good category in that we had few duds. I spoke to people who tasted Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in that price range, and they said they were miserable.

But we also had few stars. We picked only 7 gold medals, no double golds. Of the seven, two made it only because judges used their one daily "silver bullet," which allows a judge's vote to count twice. There simply wasn't a single immediately recognizable great wine out of all 80 entered.

Next door, another panel had Syrahs priced between $10 and $20, and they gave (I believe) 14 golds out of 49 wines. Now, it's possible that we were a particularly tough panel, but I don't think so; our gold percentage going into the day (an important stat for organizers, who get their money from entry fees) was a little above average thanks to a nice group of Sauvignon Blancs from $14 to $20.

I also spoke to someone on the panel that got Syrahs over $40, and he said that many were overextracted and overoaked.

There may be a lesson in this. Syrah is a pretty easy grape to grow and turn into wine cheaply; that's why it is the foundation of Yellow Tail, and is often Two Buck Chuck's best wine. But trying to tart it up might be counterproductive. The reason we gave so many silvers and bronzes, but so few golds, was excessive hang time; a lot of the $30-$40 Syrahs had nice fruit, but no acid. That's the kind of wine you think you like at first, but get bored with before your glass is done.

We also had 26 Muscats, and I spent my silver bullet to make one of them one of our four golds. I'm rather surprised we didn't have more Muscats to judge because many California wineries make a little Muscat to sell in their tasting room to people who only like sweet wines, and tasting rooms are where gold medals have the most sales impact. But after tasting wines with up to 7.8% residual sugar (and we gave that one a silver), my mouth was glad there weren't more.

We were just about to leave when the organizers asked if we would judge 9 fruit wines. I'm glad we did, because I got to taste a few products I would never otherwise try.

The first four had names that combined fruit and wine: Blackberry Merlot, Raspberry Zinfandel, Strawberry White Zinfandel and Tropical Chardonnay. We thought all four were good efforts at fruit wine: refreshing, not overly sweet, and accurately representing their fruit flavors (if you read "Tropical" as "Pineapple"). We gave the Blackberry Merlot and Strawberry White Zinfandel gold medals, and the latter nearly got a double gold. I liked it a lot more than most White Zinfandels actually made from Zinfandel.

We taste all of these wines anonymously, but the odd names made them pretty easy to look up.

**Edited from here** And I jumped to an incorrect conclusion when I first posted this, which just shows how effective blind tasting is. In fact, the wine we loved was a Gallo product, Wild Vines Strawberry White Zinfandel, which sells for under $5. During the sweepstakes round, I discussed the wine (still anonymous at this point) with the judges around me, and we all agreed it was delightful -- refreshing, nice strawberry flavor, not cloying at all. Turns out it was something that, yesterday, I would have mocked. This just goes to show you the value of an open mind, and open mouth. Congrats Gallo, that's a fine product for $5.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Sauvignon Blanc under $20 is good value

My group of 5 judges at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition drew two strong categories today: Sauvignon Blancs from $14-$20, and Rhone reds other than Syrah and Grenache.

We had 88 Sauv Blancs (before lunch, which built up an appetite) and gave 13 gold medals, with a low proportion of no-medal duds. I think this is a great value point for Sauvignon Blanc. It's expensive enough for good grapes, but too cheap for new oak, which would ruin the wines. Ironically, the Best of Class winner we picked was, I believe, fermented in used oak barrels; it had a mellower mouthfeel, though I personally prefer ripping acidity.

Re good groups: Most judges have been complaining about Zinfandel, but I spoke to the people today who tasted $30 to $35 Zins and they said it was a great group. It's interesting: their theory is that Zins cheaper than that are casually made, while Zins more expensive than that are over-oaked. I haven't tasted Zin, so I'm just passing this along.

After lunch, my group tasted 20 Mourvedres, 5 Carignanes and 1 Cinsault as a single category with no price restrictions. Every one of the Carignanes got some kind of medal. I guess that if a U.S. winery is bold enough to put Carignane on the label, it must at least be decent.

My panel has given only one double gold -- that's when every taster agrees it's gold -- after two days and more than 350 wines. This is a very low percentage, but we've learned that we have very different opinions on wines. I know that some believe this makes wine competition results invalid, but I disagree. I think this is a realistic representation of the fact that peoples' tastes differ. Sure, I respect Robert Parker, but does that mean I always agree with him? What about you -- is there any critic whose opinion you always agree with?

Anyway, on that double gold: We all thought the Cinsault was a great effort, and we fairly quickly agreed that it was a double gold. But we all also agreed it wasn't the best Rhone red we tasted; our favorite Mourvedres were better. So we had another statistical anomaly: one double gold in a group, but it didn't take Best of Class. (A Mourvedre did.)

I can't wait to find out the identity of these wines on Friday. But we have one more full day of tasting tomorrow. Our group starts with 90 Syrahs from $30 to $40. I believe this will be a great group, but we'll see. Then, we finish with about 25 Muscats. Pray for me.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Some cheap Chardonnay maker owes me a lot

Today my panel of 5 judges at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition was assigned two categories: Chardonnays under $10, and Pinot Noir from $20 to $25.

The Chards turned out to be less dreadful than we thought, but the Pinots were disappointing. What was most interesting, though, was how the Best in Class wines were decided.

You probably imagine wine judges tasting and ultimately agreeing that a few wines are standouts. In fact, the Chardonnay winner at first had only one advocate -- me. And the Pinot winner never had more than two advocates (I wasn't one, I hated that wine.)

Here's how it happened. We were scheduled to taste 67 Chardonnays under $10 to start the competition. I liked the very first wine of the day a lot -- I thought it had nice toastiness, good lemon fruit, and was well-balanced. It was everything I want in a $20 Chardonnay, even better at under $10.

But when it came time to vote, I said Gold, two judges said Bronze, and two others said No Medal.

I argued for it (saying essentially what I wrote above) and got one other judge to go up to Silver, which would have given it a Silver.

At this point, I threatened to use my silver bullet -- a rather bogus new idea in which a single judge can make his vote count twice. Each judge is allowed one silver bullet per day. But it was pointed out to me that I still couldn't take the wine to a gold medal. So I held my bullet.

The wines came in flights of 10. After we had tasted 40, some of the other tasters realized they had been too harsh on the first flight, which is a hazard -- you have no perspective yet. So we all agreed to retaste the wines we liked from the first 10.

On the retaste, again I threatened to use my silver bullet. The passion of my argument, or who knows, maybe I look like Charles Manson with the new goatee, convinced two more judges to agree to give Chardonnay No. 1 a gold, though grudgingly. This made it one of six gold medals in the group.

We tasted this group blind and voted by acclamation for them. The upshot is, retasted without the stigma of being wine No. 1 -- about which we had been arguing for some time -- this Chardonnay won Best in Class. I'm sure the winery that made it will be bragging about (and marketing) the award. If they ever read this, they'll know who to thank. However, I won't learn the identity of my Chardonnay protege until Friday.

As for the winning Pinot, to me it was bretty and nasty, and I gave it no medal. Two judges agreed with me. But two other judges liked it a lot, and gave it Gold. One of them spent his silver bullet to give it a Gold overall -- ironic, in that three of us hated it.

We gave only 4 golds out of 51 Pinot Noirs from $20 to $25, and none of them were unanimous. The category was disappointing. My theory is that while there are some good corporate Pinots under $20, and good small-producer Pinots over $30, we were in a pricing dead zone.

When it came time to vote on Best in Class, we again had the sharp divide: two judges chose Bretty Pinot as their favorite; the other three of us split our votes. One judge ended up having the deciding vote between Bretty Pinot and a fruity Pinot, and she picked Bretty Pinot. I think I've never disagreed more with a panel verdict at a wine competition.

But hey, I got to see the Chard I liked awarded, so the day wasn't all bad. Wine competitions are a lot like politics, a series of compromises that may or may not be for the greater good.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Name 3 wines you don't want to taste

This week I'll be judging wines at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. The organizers sent judges a questionnaire that included this thought-provoking request:

Please designate three (3) wines you favor in evaluating and three (3) wines least desirable

What would you choose?

Which type of wine I like to drink most was not always the deciding factor. When judging, you're not drinking, you're sampling, up to 150 wines a day. Under those conditions, it's easier to sample lower alcohol, lower tannin, dry wines.

Like every other judge, I also have my own agendas. Do I want to write a story about a certain category? If so, this is a great time to find gems I wouldn't otherwise encounter.

Here were my choices, and the reasoning behind them.

Categories I want to taste:

Pinot Noir: Personal preference plays a role here; I love Pinot Noir. I also think it varies a lot from year to year, and I don't want my knowledge of California's best to get outdated. Plus, Pinot Noir is low in tannin and lower in alcohol than most reds.

Sauvignon Blanc: In my experience, this is the easiest category to taste; my palate stays fresh for twice as many wines, perhaps because of the acidity (though my dentist might cast a dissenting vote). It helps that I'm a big fan of Sauv Blanc.

Sparkling wine: These are also low in alcohol and thus easier to taste than most wines, but that's not why I chose this category. I just love bubbly, so asking me to taste 100 of them is like asking Tiger Woods to audition groupies.

Categories I don't want to taste:

Cabernet Sauvignon: This might seem like a strange choice, given that Cabernet is, overall, probably what California does best. To me, though, there's no harder wine to taste in big groups -- and there will be hundreds to taste in this competition. Cabernet Sauvignon is so tannic and so alcoholic that I start struggling after as few as 30 wines, and it makes me feel guilty. I would hate to miss out on some gem at wine number 73 because I had lost my palate already. I didn't list this one without some regret at all the great wines I'll miss, but my mouth will feel a lot better without them.

Merlot: This was the easiest wine for me to choose to reject. I've done a couple of major stories on California Merlot and I believe I know where all the good ones come from -- Rockpile, the hillsides and mountains of Napa Valley, a few mountains in Sonoma County, and nowhere else (sorry). There are hundreds of other Merlots out there, but few I find interesting. I like having a bottle of Merlot now and then, but please, not 100 of them.

Zinfandel: This was the hardest wine for me to reject because I really like tasting Zin. There's great Zin grown in many places, and I love the way Zin's flavor changes with its terroir, from the black pepper of Russian River Valley to the big black fruit of Napa to the red fruits of Amador County. But the wines are high in alcohol, which wears me down. And there are just so many of them. I considered rejecting Petite Sirah, which I don't like tasting anywhere near as much as Zin. But the Petite Sirah category is so much smaller that I could take a deep breath and blast through all the wines in a couple of hours. Zinfandel might be two days, and that's overkill.

I don't know what I'll end up being assigned to taste. But I'll bet that because I didn't reject Chardonnay, I'll get at least some. About 20% of all California wines are Chardonnays; somebody has to taste all those wines. I considered rejecting Chard just because I fear getting nothing but Chardonnay for days if everybody else rejects it. But I rather like tasting Chardonnay, when at least some of them are good; there's a lot of interesting variation between lean unoaked wines and butter bombs.

I ran this question by a few of my wine-loving friends today and they mostly concurred with my choices. One said he'd like to taste Pinot Gris, which I agree is an easy category, but from California I generally like Sauvignon Blanc better. Another said she'd like to taste Rhone reds, which is a good choice.

One friend suggested she would like to taste only wines over $50. I don't know if that's an option, and if it is, I don't know if I would take it. The sessions would probably be more pleasurable, but I would learn a lot less about the state of everyday wine in California.

However it turns out, one thing is for sure -- by the end of the competition, I'll be ready for a nice bottle of junmai ginjo sake.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year, with Ass Cookies

As this is my first blog post of the new decade, I'd like to show off the type of incisive, thought-provoking journalism on wine and food you can expect from The Gray Market Report over the next 10 years.

These cookies taste like ... I got a hint of ... nah, can't do it. The picture says it all.

Happy New Year.