Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Alcohol Challenge: Me vs. Adam Lee

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post in which I said I don’t like Pinot Noir with more than 14.5% alcohol.

Siduri owner/winemaker Adam Lee challenged me to a blind tasting, claiming I wouldn’t be able to tell which wines were over my arbitrary limit and which weren’t.

On a sunny Sunday morning, we met in an empty restaurant in San Francisco’s Marina district for the challenge (he's the one with good posture). Would my palate back up my words, or am I just another bloviating pundit?

Here’s the setup. Lee took 10 of his own wines from the 2008 vintage and placed them in brown paper bags, numbered 1-10, two weeks before our meeting.

Then, his mother had a heart attack. So he flew to Texas to attend her. Consequently, he forgot which bottle was in which bag.

“Sorry to tell you this, but this tasting wasn’t the main thing on my mind,” Lee said. His mother recovered, and the now double-blind tasting went on as scheduled.

Lee brought the technical data on the wines, including the real alcohol percentages, as opposed to those listed on the bottle.

US law allows some difference between reality and the label. If a wine is less than 14% alcohol, there’s 1.5% leeway. If it’s over 14% alcohol, there’s 1% leeway. However, the label must accurately reflect which side of 14% alcohol the wine lands on.

In other words, if the label reads 13% alcohol, in reality the wine can be anywhere from 11.5 to 14%. If the label reads 14.5% alcohol, the wine can be anywhere from 14 to 15.5%. This is why so many French wines list “12.5% alcohol” on the label (actual alcohol: 11 to 14%), and why Shafer Vineyards lists all its alcohol percentages at 14.9.

I imply no cynicism here. Changing the label even in this tiny way requires lots of paperwork at both state and federal levels and costs money as well. Lee said it costs him $1,300 in licensing fees to change the alcohol level on a label from one year to the next, even if nothing else changes. So why change the label if he doesn't have to?

On to the wines. For ease of reading the play-by-play, I’ll tell you what the wines were right away. But Lee didn’t reveal any of them until we were all done. Remember that all are 2008 Siduri Pinot Noirs.

Wine 1: Rosella’s Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands. A rich wine with good body. Lee thinks it’s over 14.5%. I say it’s not; I say out loud, “I think it’s about 14.3.” This is my finest moment of the day; the label reads 14.1 but it’s actually 14.29. I should have stopped there.

Wine 2: Ewald Vineyard, Russian River Valley. Tart and persistent with good acidity. We both think it’s under 14.5. The label says 14.3; it’s actually 14.88.
“This is a vineyard that got frosted very badly” in the spring of ‘08, Lee says, explaining that the first grape buds died, and the secondary buds took longer to develop. “That’s why it doesn’t taste so ripe.”

Wine 3: Keefer Ranch Vineyard, Russian River Valley. Probably my favorite overall wine in the first run through (and one of 3 bottles I took home), it’s smooth and well-integrated, with some earthiness. We both think it’s under 14. Oops. Label says 14.1, actual alcohol 14.88. More on this later.

Wine 4: Sonoma Coast. This one tastes a little hot but doesn’t have a big body, so I guess that it’s about 14.0. Lee also thinks it’s under 14.5. Another good moment: Label 14.1, actual 14.11. Right now I’m 2 for 4, and Lee is 1 for 4 on his own wines.

Wine 5: Beran Vineyards, Willamette Valley. It doesn’t have much color and I take that and its light body as tips that it’s the lowest in the flight. Another success: Label 13.0, actual 12.77. Who said American Pinot was too big? I’m 3 for 5 and still one up on Lee.

Wine 6: Santa Rita Hills. It’s big and rich and I think it’s not only over 14.5, but has residual sugar. Wrong on all counts: Label 14.1, actual 14.24, and it’s completely dry. Oops. But Lee missed it too; I’m 3 for 6 and still up by one.

Wine 7: Abre Vert Vineyard, Willamette Valley. It’s ripe, bright and on the big side. We both think it’s in the high 14s. Oops. Label 13.0, actual 13.63. I’m 3 for 7 but still ahead by one.

Wine 8: Cargasacchi Vineyard, Santa Rita Hills. It has bright fruit, but also a minty note and some funk. To quote Adam exactly, “It’s got some earthy, stinky character. But not in a … There’s James Brown funk, and there’s … funk.” I say it’s over 14.5; Lee disagrees. Label 13.8, actual 13.86. Good God! There goes my lead; we’re both 3 for 8.

Wine 9: Sonatera Vineyard, Sonoma Coast. I drink this wine more often than anything else of Lee‘s, both because I like it and because it’s on several San Francisco restaurant wine lists. I recognized its nice cranberry fruit and its, er, James Brown, and I say it’s under 14. Lee thinks it’s over 14.5. Label 13.1, actual 13.96! I’m 4 for 9 and back in the lead.

Wine 10: Eddie’s Lot, Pisoni Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands. This was a one-off Lee did to honor Eddie Pisoni after his death. He farmed a section of the vineyard differently, taking several steps that ended up leading to extra ripeness. I liked this wine a lot for its bright cherry fruit and great acidity. I think it‘s under 14.5; Lee says it‘s over.

At the reveal, he opens this bag last and says, “You ready for the painful one?” Label 15.1, actual 16.01. Ouch. He proved his point -- I liked a Pinot at over 16% alcohol, and missed the alcohol percentage by more than 1.5%.

And we ended up tied. I was right only 4 times out of 10 -- but so was Lee, and these are his wines. So I’m calling it like the US-England soccer match: Gray beats Lee 4-4.

As my prize, I took home three of the wines: the Keefer Ranch, the Beran Vineyards and the Abre Vert. I loved the Keefer Ranch, and I confess that part of the reason I took home the two Oregon wines was that they actually are lower in alcohol, so I could drink more of them and reflect on my bloviating punditry.

The story doesn't end there. I invited my wife to take the same test. She is my co-author of a wine book in Japanese, but she doesn't taste wine every day like I do, and she rarely drinks more than a glass. I thought I'd show her how hard the test was.

Hard for me and Adam -- but not for her. For the Abre Vert, she guessed 13.8; actual was 13.63. For the Beran, she guessed 13.5; actual was 12.77. And for the Keefer Ranch, she guessed 14.9; actual was 14.88. Wow.

After jumping up and down to celebrate (Nippon scores!), she explained that she's very sensitive to alcohol because it affects her so much. Because I can drink more than her, she says it's not as important to me.

There's one more postscript. At the showdown tasting, the Keefer Ranch was probably my overall favorite. It also showed well when I was retasting it with my wife.

But by the end of the night, the bottle with the least in it was the Beran Vineyards -- the one with the lowest alcohol level. I refilled my glass with it after I stopped drinking the Keefer Ranch.

Was this because a low-alcohol wine is naturally easier and more pleasurable to drink, or was it because I knew very well that this was the lower-alcohol wine? I'm not sure, though honestly I lean toward the latter.

But as a bloviator, I know what I should say: American Pinot Noir alcohol threat level orange!

And it sure goes well with humble pie, especially the fine version my wife makes.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Expensive Cabernets fail to impress

Expensive Cabernets aren’t all that.

This was my takeaway from judging at the Sunset Magazine Wine Awards last week.

Sunset divides wine into four price categories: below $15, $15-$30, $30-$50 and over $50. Usually I volunteer to judge one of the moderate categories.

But this year, they made me wear pancake makeup and a metrosexual sweater for an hour-long photo shoot in the sun (Blake, can you cross your legs? At the ankles? The other way? And lean your hand on the box? And look casual?). I decided to go greedy and parked my too-black-for-Sunset jacket at the pricey table.

Sara Schneider, Sunset’s wine editor, warned me that I might not like it as well as my regular perch in the under-$50s, because the wines tend to be overblown. She was so right. I breezed through 21 whites from $35 to $50 before moving up in price, and I did not move up one iota in deliciousness.

Sunset’s awards are limited to wines from California, Oregon and Washington that have been nominated by writers and sommeliers. They don’t accept unvetted entries, so it’s generally a good group, which is why I like judging it.

The tasting is blind, as all good ones are, and it’s a verbal irony that blind tastings are always eye-opening.

In this case, what was most shocking was just how ordinary so many of the over-$50 wines are. Few were poor, but as a group, they simply were not as good as the $35 to $50 wines.

I’ll make two sweeping generalizations.

1) Pricey American Pinot Noirs tend to taste like Syrah -- big bodies, no elegance or complexity. I didn’t hate any of the 13 Pinots, but I only really liked four.

2) About half of the pricey Cabernets -- including blends, they averaged $113, significantly more than the Pinots (average $71) -- taste like blueberry bubble gum, which is great if you like that, although Hubba Bubba is, what, 99 cents?

I was not a lone wolf with this opinion. Groans came from around the table, and not just because Sunset didn’t let us wear our own clothes. (The memo I ignored instructed me to wear “sea foam blue.” Isn’t sea foam white?)

The key in a setting like this is to concentrate. You can be in the middle of a rant about grapes getting too ripe, and if you’re not careful you’ll miss a balanced, elegant wine. I did find some of those, which I’ll list below.

Yet more than half of the Cabs were simple fruit-punchy wines; cherry juice with a kick.

I’ll always defend the right of people to drink whatever they want, and wineries to make money by serving that market.

This explains the rising popularity of Argentine Malbec, one of the more characterless red wines in the world. If all you want is cherry juice, why pay $113 for it?

Here are the exceptions to that rule: pricey wines that were well worth the money.

Gamble Family Heart Block Yountville Sauvignon Blanc 2007 ($50): Often I turn my nose up at oaked Sauv Blanc, but this wine has great balance and elegant fruit and the subdued oak notes accent rather than cover.

St. Supery Dollarhide Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon 2008 ($34): Bright citrus and melon with good length and gravitas.

Domaine Serene Clos du Soleil Dundee Hills Chardonnay ($45): Bright lime and melon fruit mingle with some toast throughout the long finish.

Lynmar Quail Hill Vineyard Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($40): A toasty and warm Chardonnay with nice citrus fruit that takes it time unfolding.

Adelsheim Winderlea Vineyard Dundee Hills Pinot Noir ($90): Raspberry fruit with a soft mouthfeel; a treat to taste a pricey Pinot that tastes like Pinot.

Duckhorn Napa Valley Merlot ($52): I loved this wine so much, argued for it, and was a little shocked when it was revealed to be a 27,000-case product that I tend to take for granted. But it’s exactly what you want in a Merlot: voluptuous body, rich cherry fruit. I must add that I preferred it without food, but I’m sure that’s how many of its fans most enjoy it. Still, a standout against wines with snootier reputations that cost 3 times as much.

Saxum Broken Stones Paso Robles Syrah/Grenache/Mourvedre ($130): I started lunch (post-reveal) with the Gamble Family Sauv Blanc, tasted through all my favorite whites and reds again, and at the end of the meal, this was in my glass. It’s complex and savory, with notes of pastrami, pomegranate, cherry and soy. The price is stunning for a Paso wine, which is probably why the ‘06 is still current release. The wine is stunning as well.

Dominus Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 ($130): I must really like Dominus, because I often prefer it in blind tastings, and it was my favorite Cab again. It’s a Cab with balance and integrity: dark cherry fruit, notes of black olive and coffee. Delightful and not given to excess. If only I could afford to taste it non-blind.

Jordan Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($52): Here’s a wine that pulls off the all-fruit style with panache. Berries and cherries keep emerging from the glass with enough acidity to appreciate them. Like the Duckhorn Merlot, it stood out in a group where most of the wines cost considerably more.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Teenagers drink responsibly when taught to

One of our problems with alcohol in the USA is immature behavior regarding it -- from adults.

More than a third of Americans don't drink any alcohol at all. Despite wine being all over the Bible, elements of the religious right are always trying to bring back Prohibition in baby steps. What sense does it make to prevent people from buying beer during church on Sunday, as many cities' laws forbid?

One of the most effective ways to exploit America's post-Prohibition prudishness is to bring children into the argument. That's how direct shipping is always challenged by wholesalers seeking to maintain their power: the idea that teenagers will order a case of wine and drain it between the UPS guy's arrival and their parents' return home from work.

I was delighted Saturday to read online at the New York Times a batch of letters from young adults regarding their early drinking experiences. I won't say much more on the topic today, because I strongly urge you to read what these people have to say.

One parting shot, though: Did you know George Washington was a distiller? And that a replica of his still will be cranking out rye whiskey at Mount Vernon starting July 1?

America: Drinking responsibly for more than 230 years, and it all starts with parents sharing a glass with their kids, rather than refusing to admit alcohol is a part of life.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Pinot Gris: Dissing Oregon's cash cow

It takes some guts -- and a belly full of wine -- to slag your cash cow in front of a group of reporters. But that's exactly what Chehalem founder/winemaker Harry Peterson-Nedry did recently, speaking about Oregon Pinot Gris.

"Pinot Gris is a good cashflow wine, but its days in Oregon are limited," said Peterson-Nedry, right. "As a variety it's just not as great as Riesling or Chardonnay."

I agree. But some consumers love Pinot Gris precisely because it's less flavorful than Riesling or Chard. There are some times when people simply want a neutral wine; this is why Italian Pinot Grigio (same grape, different accent) is one of the most popular imported wines in America, particularly on the East Coast.

Pinot Gris is hugely important in Oregon. It's easily the second-most produced variety, behind Pinot Noir.

2009 Oregon wine grape production

Pinot Noir 53.1%
Pinot Gris 16.7%
Riesling 5.7%
Chardonnay 5.6%
Cabernet Sauvignon 3.1%
Syrah 2.9%
Merlot 2.8%
Pinot Blanc 1.4%
Gewurztraminer 1.2%
Everything else 7.5%

Pinot Gris also continues to be planted; production in 2009 was up 45% over 2003, though that's a bit less than the average variety, which was up 67.5%.

One damning thing about Pinot Gris, though, is that serious tastings exclude it. At the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, Peterson-Nedry and Rollin Soles of Argyle led several of us through a 30-wine tasting of older Oregon wines in an attempt to prove the state's gravitas. We tasted Rieslings as far back as 1988 and Chardonnays as far back as 1998, but not one Pinot Gris.

Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. I think most consumers cellar wines too long, not too little. If you have a nice tannic Fronsac, you want to put it away for a decade or more. But most American wines these days are made to drink now, and you're doing yourself and the wine a disservice by waiting five years.

What we tasted were the exceptions. These were the highlights (my tasting notes in italics):
* 1979 Ponzi Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, smokey catsup with raspberries and peppered pastrami
* 1985 Amity Winemaker's Reserve Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, bright and juicy cherry with charred steak notes
* 1988 Amity Oregon Dry Riesling, apricot and green apple with a hint of anise
* 1991 Argyle Reserve Oregon Dry Riesling, lime, peach and clay
* 1991 Ponzi Reserve Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, tart pomegranate with cherry tobacco
* 1997 Domaine Serene Evenstad Reserve Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, raspberries and cherries with a floral note
* 1998 Bethel Heights Southeast Block Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, juicy cherry with black pepper
* 1998 Seven Hills Winery Walla Walla Valley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, juicy black cherry with black olives
* 1998 Hamacher Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, raspberry and cola and spice
* 2000 Sinnean Columbia Valley Merlot, black cherry and violet with a savory finish
You'll note that there's not one Chardonnay on my list of favorites. I walked away from this tasting a believer in the aging potential of Oregon Pinot Noir, but despite the constantly drawn parallels to Burgundy, I don't think the older Chards are in the same league.

Oregon is a bit like New Zealand in that it doesn't get the attention of its larger neighbor, and its advocates are always worried about the wines' international reputations. Argyle's Soles believes this kind of tasting in California is necessary.

"Great wines age," Soles says. "We want to show the world that we are a serious wine region. We're trying to invest in future generations."

Which brings me back to Pinot Gris. Does it bring down the reputation of Oregon as a wine region when 16.7% of its wine tastes, essentially, like "white wine"?

I think not. If Oregon Pinot Gris tasted bad, maybe it would. I think New York state wineries' insistence on making Bordeaux varietals holds back their reputation for this reason. But there's nothing wrong with a wine that tastes like nothing, especially when you realize you're never robbing the cradle to drink it.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

What happens to Napa if Cabernet falls?

Is Napa Valley really the best terroir in California?

That idea is the foundation of its success, and every year it gets reinforced by Robert Parker and Wine Spectator, which both coo over its Cabernets, doling out 98 point scores while other varietals from other regions rarely top 93.

That's why wineries making mediocre Cab from Napa feel like they can get away with charging over $50 when it's hard to get that much money for, say, the best Grenache in the country. And it's not just Cab -- everything from Napa Valley costs more. Pinot Grigio, Sangiovese, Petite Sirah -- it all demands premium retail price if it's from Napa.

I believe Napa Valley is the best terroir for Merlot in the United States. It's also the best terroir for Cabernet in California (though parts of Washington state might be just as good.)

But -- and this is a huge BUT -- Napa's not the best at anything else.

Chardonnay? Napa Valley Chardonnay is often an overpriced joke. There are still some good ones from Carneros; Mike Grgich knows what he's doing, and there are other exceptions. But the majority of Napa Valley Chardonnays are cynical cocktails of butter and oak. If you like Chardonnay, you should be buying it from Russian River Valley or the Sonoma Coast or other cooler places.

Zinfandel? This might be the third-best wine produced in Napa, but you can get better ones from Sonoma or Contra Costa County, and even Paso Robles.

Syrah? Cooler regions are better. And cheaper.

Every other variety? Please see Syrah.

All of Napa Valley's reputation rides on Cab and Merlot. To be fair, this is the same as Burgundy, where all the reputation rides on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, or Rioja, where it's all on Tempranillo, or many other great regions.

What this means is that Napa Valley has a huge interest in making sure Cab and Merlot remain America's favorite red wines.

But will they? As we get more sophisticated as a wine-drinking nation, some people are beginning to ask for more food-friendly, balanced wines. Right now it's a tiny movement of sommeliers and aficionados.

Yet I cannot remember the last time I met a wine professional who said, "I really like Cabernet." Usually it's the exact opposite. Sommeliers, wine buyers, wine writers, wine bar owners: they're just not drinking Cabernet anymore.

Eric Asimov recently wrote in the New York Times that millenials aren't ordering Bordeaux anymore. What happens when they realize that Napa Cabs, while giving more forward fruit, are generally even less food-friendly?

Meanwhile, I was perusing a list of tasting-room fees in Napa and was shocked: $25 is the new $10. And for that, you don't even get to taste the reserve wines.

Napa still gets plenty of wine tourism because it has average Americans convinced that it's worth it. Why waste $5 in a tasting room in Santa Barbara County on its non-Cabernet wines when they only get 90 points, when you can pay $30 to taste wines from the neighbor of the place that scored 99! And you might even be able to see the bottle (though no touching, please.)

Maybe this will go on indefinitely. Maybe Americans can only remember wine facts in shorthand: "Cab good. Napa good. Worth more."

I do know this: I would not like to have my own money invested in the continuation of that belief.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The smell of Mega Purple

Is Mega Purple "wine"? You can add it to wine without listing it on the label, and it's not a filtering agent that's later removed. So technically, I suppose it could be.

I can say with confidence that you have drunk Mega Purple. You can't be a regular US wine drinker without having had some. This is the stuff that has eliminated forever the idea that a $9 wine will be light in color.

Mega Purple is a grape-based compound that is supposed to darken the color of a wine without adding any flavors or aromas. I found out that's not true.

While it is almost flavorless, it definitely has an aroma. I compared it yesterday* to a gymnasium floor -- something I have smelled in many cheap wines over the last few years.

(BTW, congratulations to Guren and Meg for correctly guessing it. You win a No Prize!)

Wineries adore Mega Purple because American consumers are caught up in the idea that for wine, darker is better. Black fruit is better than red fruit. Roses should be red, not light pink. And heaven forbid if a bottle of Zinfandel doesn't look inky.

When your cheap wine does look inky, there's your reason.

But is it only cheap wine? Not likely -- but not easy to prove.

I want to thank Charlie Kidd, winemaker at Flat Creek Estate in Texas, for mixing me up the pictured sample of Mega Purple in water. Texas wineries have an annual problem with grapes not getting enough color because of their short growing season; Mega Purple is a good solution for them. But it wasn't developed in Texas -- it's a California innovation.

However, I have never been offered the chance to taste it here. Whenever I ask, the winery representative responds with something like, "Let me show you our new $6.3 million tasting room."

Mega Purple is like steroids in baseball in the '90s: plenty of people are doing it, and it might be increasing their average, but overall it's bad for everyone because it changes the expectations of what's possible.

If a vineyard manager can't get enough color in California, he's doing something wrong. But wineries aren't satisfied with enough color -- they want The Dark Knight. And they want it every year in every wine. Nobody wants to have the one maroon-colored Cabernet on the shelf.

I wish I could say categorically in every review, "Includes Mega Purple." I'll never be able to do so with authority. You can't say for sure when you see dark purple if you're seeing this additive.

But now I know what it smells like. Many winemakers have better noses than me, so you know what I'm saying -- this stuff is not odorless. And its odor isn't great.

Is there any chance we can ever bring the "red" back to red wine?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Name this wine!

Today I'm going to channel my inner Vaynerchuk with a little visual quiz.

Name this wine! We've all had it.

I guarantee that if you drink at least 25 bottles of wine per year, unless you drink from an extremely limited portfolio, you have had this. (And if you DO only drink first growths or whatever, please spare us.)

Here are my tasting notes:

Very attractive dark purple color. Smells a bit like a freshly washed gym floor: concrete, dust, some hard rubber. Nearly flavorless; I believe I picked up the faintest hint of Welch's grape juice. Abrupt finish. Smooth on the palate with no tannic grip whatsoever.

Can you Name That Wine?

Monday, June 7, 2010

Ideal alcohol percentage for wine varies by grape

Last week I was tasting some Pinot Noir and I tweeted that I saw no reason for any Pinot to ever go over 15% alcohol.

This was an unusually absolute stance for me, because I tend to be a relativist on the issue of alcohol. If a wine is balanced and doesn't taste hot, I won't mark it down solely on the numbers.

And unlike some Californiaphobes, I will drink wines over 15% alcohol, particularly Zinfandel, which is notoriously high in sugar.

However, not all grapes are equal. I'll try a Grenache with 15.5% alcohol, but I wouldn't consider drinking a Chardonnay at that level, and they exist.

Here is my rough guide for what the alcohol range of different varietals should be. Generally, the highest number is there to accommodate ripe but balanced wines from California or Barossa Valley; the rest of the world really shouldn't be at the edge.

Cabernet Sauvignon: About 12.5 to about 14.7%. Cab is the grape that makes me want to say "15 is too much." There are good wines higher than 14.5%; Shafer mysteriously makes all of its wines at 14.9% alcohol (taking advantage of the 1% tolerance in the law), and they're nice. But most Cabs over 14.7 are too big, too hot, and too uninteresting -- the grapes got so ripe that they lost their complexity. As for the low end, Kermit Lynch once showed me a bottle of Ridge Monte Bello Cab from the early '70s that was under 12%, and check out the 12.5 on the Diamond Creek bottle in the photo. That said, these days anything under 13 is really unusual and probably a manipulated corporate product.

Merlot: About 13 to about 14.5. Merlot needs to be ripe, but should be soft and approachable. I might drink a glass of 14.9 Cab without food. I don't see why the world needs 14.9 Merlot.

Pinot Noir: About 12.5 to about 14.4. The upper limit cuts off some Santa Lucia Highlands Pinots, but if I want a red wine that big I'll order Grenache. Making Pinot grapes into wine above 14.5% alcohol is putting a round wine into a square peg.

Syrah: About 12.5 to about 15.5. The upper level is purely for Barossa Valley, but I have had some great Shirazes with balance at that level. However, if you want to taste the grape at its spicy, feral best, you need to get it at about 13.5 from the coolest climate you can.

Grenache: This grape can handle some heat. I'll drink it from about 13 -- when it tends to be light and spicy -- to as high as 16, when it's ripe and full-bodied. Robert Parker has given huge scores to Grenache-based wines with higher alcohol than that, and I'll acknowledge that they taste good, but I'm driving. Seriously, if you want a good high-alcohol wine, look here.

Zinfandel: Zin has its high-alcohol reputation not just because ripe wines can still be balanced, like Grenache, but because the clusters of grapes ripen unevenly, so that lower alcohol versions tend to be pretty bad. It's rare to have good, unmanipulated Zin below about 14% alcohol. However, I start losing interest above 15.5.

Chardonnay: One of my gripes with many wine and food writers is the old saw that "wine is meant to serve with food." What if it's not? There's nothing inherently wrong with having wine as a cocktail, which many Americans do. That's the best use of Chardonnays over about 14.2% alcohol. I prefer Chardonnay from about 13.3 to 14% -- a pretty narrow range, because less than that is usually underripe or alcohol-reduced. But I'll drink it up to about 14.5%, though usually without food.

Sauvignon Blanc: The whole point of this grape is to keep it lean and refreshing. I like it as low as 12.3%, and don't see any reason to drink Sauv Blanc over 14%.

Riesling: Is there a grape with a lower limit or a wider range? I've had delightfully complex Rieslings at 7% from Germany and 14% from Australia. I don't think you'd want to switch countries with those numbers.

Pinot Grigio: Lately in our rush to make everything bigger, I've seen Pinot Gris/Grigio with alcohol befitting a Cabernet. This is a mistake. Like Sauv Blanc, the point of this grape is to be refreshing, even the more complex Alsatian versions. I'll drink it as low as 12.5 but if it's 14, I don't want it.

Viognier: You want a boozy white? Pick this one. It's naturally high in sugar and while I've had good ones as low as 13, it tends to peak in the 14s, and is the one white that I will drink all the way up to 15, though not higher.

Rose: Why would I want a pink wine at 14.5% alcohol? It's not against the law to chill red wine. If that's what you want, drink that. Roses are best from about 11.5 to 13.5, and I'll rarely drink one above 14.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Free tattoo movie; free wine shipping

Last year I had the pleasure of seeing Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry, a documentary about the famous Hawaii-based tattoo artist, in a theater full of tattooed people, while representatives from Sailor Jerry rum handed out free cocktails.

"Now this is the way to enjoy a movie," I thought. Who wouldn't want a drink while seeing The Road? Although there aren't enough Cosmos in the world to get me into Sex and the City 2. But I digress.

The rum people are sponsoring free showings of the movie again this week. I don't know for sure if they'll be giving out cocktails again, but they are publicizing rum, not tattoos, so there's a pretty good chance.

The showings are on June 9 and 10 at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco at 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Tickets are free, but you have to RSVP: Click here (and fill out the form) to do so.

So how is the movie? Well, it's not about rum; in fact, you learn Sailor Jerry himself had nothing to do with the product. But it is an interesting tale of a racist, far-right jerk who despised Japanese people yet freely borrowed from their culture's tattoo aesthetic to become one of the most celebrated tattoo artists in the world.

Turns out Jerry was a precursor of today's wacko militia nuts. He was so against paying taxes to the US government that he renounced work of any kind for several years. He also had bizarre and capricious rules about who he would deign to tattoo. I'm sure he would hate having his image used to sell rum, but by the end of the movie I disliked him so much that the notion of him rolling over in his grave made me happy.

That's not to say I disliked the movie. The interviews with contemporary tattoo artists are illuminating, and Jerry lived a colorful life. If you're inked, you'll probably dig it even more than I did. Don't forget to RSVP.


With another new month comes another free shipping offer from my advertiser, Wine Chateau. Once again I've gone through my recent tasting notes and their selection to recommend a few wines.

While Wine Chateau pays me to run that ad you see in the upper right corner, and mentioning them once a month in a blog post is part of our agreement, they do not pay me to recommend wines, nor have the wineries.

Potel Aviron Fleurie Vieilles Vignes 2007 ($17.99): The first thing I searched for because I had it last night. This well-made Beaujolais has flavors of cherry and hibiscus tea and is somewhat tangy on the finish, which is surprisingly long and in a downward chord like a fading guitar note. Very food-friendly. 91 points.

Scharffenberger Mendocino County Brut NV ($17.59): I just shipped out an article on California sparkling wine for a European wine magazine, and unfortunately I couldn't include this wine because they don't export it. Pity; this is one of California's best bubbly values. The wine had been called Pacific Echo for a number of years, but it has its original name back and is just delicious: fruit-forward, with plenty of apple fruit, it's an appealing bubbly at an unbeatable price. 90 points

Brokenwood Hunter Valley Semillon 2004 ($24.19): You want a wine geek's wine? Last weekend I judged at the Critics Challenge in San Diego. At dinner afterward we had access to all of the wines we had tasted that day. Jon Bonne and Patrick Comiskey were walking around the room pouring tastes of this for a few people; I'm glad I rated a glass. It's earthy on the nose and fascinating on the palate, with strong minerality, clay, citrus and stone fruits and a very long finish. In a day in which I tasted maybe 150 wines, this was my favorite. 96 points, and maybe should be higher, considering what I just wrote.

Part of my deal is that my readers get a discount once a month. Buy wine and get 50% off shipping of 6 or more bottles with coupon code "blake12".

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Tipping on corkage

The other day I paid $20 to drink my own wine at a restaurant. That's a standard corkage fee in the Bay Area these days.

Restaurants claim they need the money because of the loss of profit from selling a bottle of wine from the list.

I think a $20 drinks profit from a party of two assumes a lot. What if we each had one glass of wine? Or a beer? Or my usual drink when I'm not having wine -- tap water?

But I'm willing to pay the $20, and have many times. However, for some reason this time I got to thinking about the tip.

When the bill arrived, it had suggestions for 18% and 20% tips (not even 15% anymore) printed right on it. Our bill for two including corkage was about $90, so a 20% tip would be $18. But if I left out corkage and tipped 20%, the tip would be $14. At 15%, the tip would be $13.50 with corkage, $10.50 without.

Should I have to tip on corkage? Isn't corkage itself a service fee?

The server brought glasses and opened the bottle, though I offered to open it myself. We refilled our glasses ourselves, as we prefer; servers like to fill glasses to the brim so you'll order another bottle, but my wife stops drinking wine long before I do.

For that the restaurant made $20. You can talk about lost drink sales all you want, but $20 to rent a couple glasses for 90 minutes is highly profitable. Does the server also get $3 or $4 for bringing those glasses to the table?

One could argue that if I don't tip on corkage, the server also lost an opportunity to generate a higher bill through drinks I might have ordered. However, the server would actually have worked in that case, as I would have asked for descriptions of the wines by the glass, and maybe a taste as well. For me the process of ordering a glass of wine is when I most want good service, especially because in many restaurants the server doesn't bring the food anyway.

I'm not convinced that servers should get tips on corkage -- certainly not 20%. But I wouldn't feel comfortable tipping 15% on only the non-corkage portion of the bill.

Fortunately, the tip section of the bill doesn't require me to spell out my logic; a number with a dollar sign in front is sufficient.

In this case, I tipped $14. That's either a generous 20% on the non-corkage portion, or an old-school 15%, rounded up, on the corkage portion. I guess you could call me the Arlen Spector of tipping on corkage: I'm firmly on the fence.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Should price count in a wine competition?

Which is a better wine: an excellent cheap Riesling, or a good tete de cuvee Champagne?

I struggled with that question in casting my vote for Best in Show at last weekend's Critics Challenge wine competition in San Diego.

This was the first time I was invited to Critics Challenge, which has a relatively small number of judges (17 this year) who are among the leading wine writers in the country in the non-Parker division.

The format is interesting: I shared a table with Dallas Morning News wine columnist Rebecca Murphy, and we tasted together, but we didn't have to agree on anything. If either of us gave the wine a gold medal, it got a gold.

Moreover, we were required to write comments that will not be anonymous, so you have to be accountable for the medals you hand out. Since we're all in the business of recommending wines anyway, this is no problem, but I found the writing to be more challenging than the evaluation. Rebecca read aloud notes on a wine she liked, a lyrical sentence where the wine reminded her of hills and fields and farmers working with their hands; I forget the details but it was beautiful. All I could muster was "Lemon fruit. Nice finish." I suck.

The first three tasting sessions of about 60 wines each involved your normal wine-competition decisions: Gold, silver or no medal? We could also give a wine a Platinum, which entered it in the sweepstakes. Perhaps I feared being mocked for my loves -- Buffy/Spike syndrome -- or perhaps Rebecca and I just didn't get great categories, but for whatever reason I was miserly with the platinum.

I awarded only 1 platinum in just over 180 wines, and it turned out to be a Livermore Valley wine, Crooked Vine Del Arroyo Vineyard Livermore Valley Syrah 2007 ($30). I wish I could tell you that I noticed the Livermore terroir and have a soft spot for the region, but in fact I just loved its savory complexity. My notes, which I don't recall, probably said something descriptively poetic like "Nice wine. I like it a whole lot." Can't wait to see that on a shelf talker.

Fortunately for the wineries that paid $80 per wine to enter, most of the writers were far more generous with the platinum than I was, so we had 52 wines in the sweepstakes round on Sunday. And that's where the philosophical debates got interesting.

First, we had to choose among 5 bubblies for best sparkling wine. We did not know the prices, but we did have category descriptions. One was maybe the best Prosecco I've ever had; another was a very good, but not transcendent, tete de cuvee Champagne. The former probably cost about $15; the latter might cost about $200.

The Prosecco was the better value, but ultimately I decided the Champagne was the better wine. I had to revisit this exact type of decision later.

We learned the Prosecco was Cantine Maschio Prosecco Treviso Brut ($13). I can't find evidence of this wine on the winery's website, so I suppose that it entered the wine in hopes of getting a medal which would help it market a new product. If somebody from Banfi reads this and wants to tell my readers where to buy it, I'd be delighted to pass that along with my strong if inarticulate recommendation.

Only 10 white wines got platinums, and I narrowed my choices to two Rieslings and two Sauvignon Blancs. The voting was by acclamation: I could have voted for all four. But I think that's refusing to make a decision. I kept tasting until ultimately I went with my favorite of the Sauvignon Blancs.

It didn't win, but it's awesome (that's a technical term), and it's a big company's wine: Cupcake Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2009 ($14). You can buy this online.

It lost to my second-favorite Riesling: turns out my favorite Riesling was another big company's wine, and also from the same part of the world: Villa Maria Cellar Selection Marlborough Riesling 2009. Great minerality, bright apricot fruit and a long finish; you can order it from here for just $17.

There's a lesson in this. I love ordering natural wines from small producers, but when the wine comes in a glass with no label, I'm always reminded that the big boys know what they're doing.

The red sweepstakes I found difficult: 36 wines were entered, most of them excellent by definition, and in very different styles. I was trying to narrow my choice to one but ran out of time and voted for three:

Sawyer Cellars Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($48)

Pizzulli Family Winery Santa Barbara County Nebbiolo 2007 ($37)

Rock Wall Wine Co. Sonoma County Zinfandel 2008 ($25)

Unlike the mass-produced whites, these were all small producers. Two of them I have met and really like personally: Sawyer is one of the nicest places to visit in Napa Valley, and Rock Wall is what Kent Rosenblum is doing with his time now that he has sold his eponymous winery; his daughter Shauna is the winemaker. I don't know the Pizzullis, but I had no idea the Nebbiolo was from California; kudos to them for succeeding with the real heartbreak grape.

Incidentally, Rock Wall -- like Rosenblum used to -- specializes in single-vineyard wines, but the one that bowled me over was a county blend. In fact, none of my very favorite sweepstakes wines was a single-vineyard wine. Blending is underrated.

None of these wines won, though; a Petite Sirah did, but it didn't move me. I wasn't knocked out by the best pink or the best sweet wine either, so my choice for best of show came down to two: My second favorite Riesling, which tasted like a very well-made cheap wine, or my favorite bubbly, the tete de cuvee Champagne.

Here, I really struggled. Competition director Robert Whitley urged me to vote for the best wine regardless of price. There are two very good reasons for this: first, that's what you're supposed to do, and second, if you never give the $200 wines best-of-show, the wineries will stop entering them.

I knew the bubbly must cost more than 10 times what the Riesling cost. But I also knew I should disregard that. Nonetheless, I reasoned thus: while it wasn't my favorite Riesling, if I was correct that it was cheap, it was a great cheap Riesling, while I thought the bubbly was only a very good tete de cuvee. Had it been entered as only Champagne, I might have reasoned differently. I voted for the Riesling -- which was probably only about my 9th favorite wine in the sweepstakes. But the other 8 had been eliminated.

Enough voters agreed with me to win Best in Show for Chateau St. Michelle Columbia Valley Dry Riesling ($9). I'm glad for this award. For $9, this is one hell of a wine: bright apricot fruit with some lime notes, and while it's not exactly dry, it's not cloyingly sweet either.

The bubbly was Perrier-Jouet Fleur de Champagne 2002 ($140). I have to confess that if you offered me one or the other, and I wasn't paying for it, I'd pick the Perrier-Jouet; it's a delicious wine, toasty and complex, yet lively.

This is how democracy works: a series of compromises, followed by free wine and recriminations. If only I had the subtlety to describe my emotions. But this post is like a silver medal winning Chardonnay: "Big body, good length, abrupt finish."