Friday, October 29, 2010

Actual results from marketing to bloggers

A few weeks ago I was offered the chance to participate in a live online blogger tasting of expensive (over $30) Chilean red blends.

I said yes; I'm not sure why, because I don't know if I've ever ordered a pricey Chilean red blend. Then I got busy that night and missed the event.

I got to wondering how effective that campaign was, so I asked, and Wines of Chile answered.

Turns out the wines were sent to 50 bloggers. I have posted the list below, unfortunately in JPG format, so they're not hot links. You'll have to seek out the blogs by their names or URLs to read the posts.

I had planned to write something about these posts, but fell asleep reading them (note to these bloggers: certainly I fell asleep before getting to yours.) Most are little more than tasting notes, with many people making a connection to the Chilean miners being rescued.

Is this effective marketing? Most of the big names among wine bloggers skipped it. Is this enough payoff to justify the expense of shipping a box of wine to 50 bloggers -- many of whom, like me, took the wine and wrote nothing?

I'd love it if people would weigh in and tell me any evidence of wines being sold because of these posts. I'd also like it if Joe Roberts or Jo Diaz or some of my other online friends who posted on the tasting would tell me if the tasting affected their opinion of Chilean wine, these wines, red blends, etc. Will you write more on the topic, or is that the end of it?

I also know that I have a number of wine industry readers, so I'm curious for your take on the success or failure of this campaign. There's a reason I still allow anonymous comments on my blog, despite legal headaches (and cowardly meanies), and this is part of it. In this instance, candor may be more valuable than identity. Thanks.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Michelin, European snobbery and food fights

Which Michelin guide story would you rather read first:
1) How European snobs suckered the always gullible Wall Street Journal;
2) How I instigated a near food-fight between Michelin Guide worldwide director Jean-Luc Naret and Slanted Door chef Charles Phan?

Let's take a quick online poll, using Diebold voting machines tested in Ohio.

Great! Results are in already -- how about that? You want to read the media criticism, and you're willing to wait until afterward to read about how I got previously jolly Phan to stare daggers at Naret.

First, here's the Wall Street Journal story. It's written in the classic Time magazine style, with three reporters sending stuff to the home base to an editor who already knew what he/she wanted to say.

I'll summarize it: restaurants in Japan's Kansai region (Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe) did very well in the latest Michelin guide, better than the restaurants of Paris or New York or London. Therefore, the guide is wrong and Michelin gave out inflated ratings as part of a cynical business plan to sell more tires in Japan.

Folks, I lived in Japan and I'll testify that, next to Singapore, it has the best overall food on the planet. This wouldn't be a surprise to the unnamed WSJ editor if she/he was on the food beat, as gushing columns about visits to Japan by chefs and food writers are common.

The WSJ would protest that the article is not an opinion piece, like this one, but a reported story with both sides. Bullshit. The story cites independent people in New York, London and Paris who think Michelin's belief in Japanese restaurants is wrong, but not one person other than the Michelin guide chief -- obviously biased -- to defend it.

Note to WSJ: The next time, if you want some actual balance in a Eurocentric piece like this, I can give you a list of American chefs who think Japan has great food. But perhaps you're just trying to curry favor in France and the UK? Parochially praising that country's food, as you point out, is good marketing.


Everybody else who interviewed Jean-Luc Naret yesterday in San Francisco focused on which restaurants got stars or lost them.*

(*Bully for Michelin for pointing out something major Bay Area food writers are too timid to admit, that Chez Panisse -- now starless -- isn't a good dining experience. If there's a more pretentious place, I hope I never eat there. And the food is competent but uninteresting.)

But I wanted to talk to him about sake. Since last year, Michelin has awarded a little flask symbol to restaurants with noteworthy sake lists. Fifteen Bay Area restaurants (mostly Japanese, but including fusion restaurants Ame, Namu and Nombe) -- got the designation.

I'm delighted to see the recognition that sake is an important part of fine dining. It's the golden era for top-end sake, which is just as exciting as great wine and is better value.

Unfortunately Naret wasn't the guy to talk on the topic. He's brilliant -- he speaks so fast I couldn't keep up and seems to have a mental file of every starred restaurant in the world. But while he enjoys sake, he's a food guy.

I did learn Michelin felt it had to add sake lists because of the Tokyo guidebook, which had a big impact on the company's overall food culture. Michelin cross-exposes its inspectors, so it now has French and American inspectors visiting Japan and Japanese inspectors visiting Europe and the US. This is why a tire company has a global food perspective the Wall Street Journal lacks.

I also learned markup doesn't play a role in the designation of noteworthy sake lists -- or wine lists. They are French at heart, so they care about region; Michelin wants to see a choice of wines or sakes from different places, including locals where appropriate. And they care about the sommelier's knowledge and advice. But if there are a couple of affordable selections -- regardless of the markup -- a restaurant can still get the "noteworthy list" graphic for wine or sake.

The fooderati who follow the Michelin guide can afford to pay a 4x markup; what they want is a good bottle, carefully chosen and explained. But caveat emptor to those of us on a budget that "noteworthy" doesn't mean "reasonably priced."


Did you know that, despite all the pomp of its release parties and tales of selling 150,000 Tokyo guides in 24 hours, the Michelin guide doesn't make money?

Naret, who came from the hotel industry 7 years ago, said the dining guide on its own is only 0.5% of Michelin's business. As the Wall Street Journal conjectured, it's something of a loss leader for the global brand.

And no wonder, when you think about the expenses. Before giving a third star to a restaurant like Meadowood (congratulations, Christopher), inspectors will visit at least 6 times, anonymously, paying the tab each time. A cross-inspector might come from another country, and Naret might visit as well.

You can see the work in the guide. I find its uniformly positive tone a little less helpful than it could be -- when everything is good, nothing stands out. But they described 519 Bay Area restaurants in this year's guide, and you have to nitpick to find inaccurate entries. I'll leave that to others.


Instead, I'll get to the fun part.

Something I hadn't known about the Michelin guide is that it gives its stars on food quality only -- not service, not decor. Naret said he put that explicitly in the guide when he took over. He spoke of a Tokyo sushi bar under a train station that got 3 stars (pissing off the Wall Street Journal).

But most chefs still believe otherwise, and it's not pretty for them to find out the truth.

I interviewed Naret at Slanted Door because KGO (channel 7) was doing a TV interview there beforehand. Why KGO chose Slanted Door, which did not get a Michelin star, you'll have to ask them.

Naret and I were chatting when Charles Phan walked over. His restaurant had been given a "Bib Gourmand," a designation for good cheap places.

Naret said he loves Slanted Door and eats there every time he's in San Francisco; he said it's his favorite lunch place here. So I asked Phan if he thought he should have a Michelin star.

"I love my title, Bib Gourmand," Phan said. "That will bring more people to my restaurant. They have a certain aesthetic and a certain genre of restaurant and I might not fit that model. I think it's great that they might have different things for different people. Maybe I'll have to build a different type of restaurant to get a star. They can't change what they do. Life is like that. It's not one size fits all. If we weren't in the guide at all, something wouldn't be right."

Then I turned to Naret and asked why Phan doesn't have a star.

"He's not looking for a star," Naret said. "He's doing 950 covers a day. You can eat as much as you can here at a very reasonable price. We love the food."

So I channeled my inner Jerry Springer and asked him, "But the star isn't about the size or the price, right? Isn't it only about the food?"

"It's about the food itself," Naret said.

"So what's more important, the Bib Gourmand or the star?" I asked.

"The star," Naret said.

"So let me ask this," I said. "You say this is your favorite lunch restaurant in San Francisco, that you eat here every time you come. And size and decor don't matter. So why doesn't it have a star?"

This was the only time I saw Naret hem and haw. I didn't get down his noncommittal words, though, because it was then that Phan realized what I was saying, and his facial expression changed from "I got a Bib Gourmand!" to "you stole my wallet and I'm going to kill you."

I said that if Slanted Door is one of the best Vietnamese restaurants in the country, and it didn't get a star, was it even possible for a Vietnamese restaurant to get a star? Phan didn't say anything, but he didn't like that either. Naret demurred, he said the Bib Gourmand is a very important award. And then I let him off the hook, and went back to talking about sake.

I took the photo of the two of them before this question sequence. But the discomfort only lasted a couple of minutes. By the time I left, Phan was smiling again and the two were sitting together, chatting like good friends.

But it does bring me back to the Wall Street Journal story. The paper was asking the wrong question -- not whether Japanese restaurants are really that good, but whether Vietnamese and Thai and Indian and Mexican restaurants really don't measure up.

God decides California grapes had hung long enough

Thank you, God.

I didn't expect you to get involved in the hangtime, concentrated-wine debate. You have so much else on your plate, including your unexpected intervention in the National League Championship Series, for which I am extremely grateful.

But I forgot you were both omnipotent and omniscient. Which means I don't really need to finish this post. But I'll spell it out for the humans who have made me one of the world's 10-most-read wine bloggers (thanks for that too, God, as it is another of your mysteries).

The 2010 northern California vintage might be the most compelling of the century so far, but only for vintners who picked their grapes before last weekend. They benefited from your long, cool summer, as their grapes had months to develop flavors without building up the huge amounts of sugar that lead to high alcohol. I simply cannot wait to start tasting these wines.

But not everybody recognized your grace. Some worshiped the false idol of super-ripeness.

On Saturday, you sent them a warning, with a little less than an inch of rain. Then on Sunday you poured nearly 6 inches of rain on Mt. St. Helena. It wasn't exactly Noah's worst storm in the rest of our Wine Country, but it might have been one of his lesser 40 days.

Winemakers who were waiting to harvest, hoping to make inky, concentrated fruit bombs, are today wondering what to do. If they harvest now, their wine might be surprisingly decent; the water absorbed by the grapes might cut their concentration enough to produce food friendliness. They might not get 98 points, but they'll be able to enjoy these wines at the dinner table with your other gifts of beast and fowl and root. It's almost like a miracle your son performed.

Or they can wait another fortnight, into November, to see if they can make a Dark Monolith Wine. But you have their attention, and they know you might again express your displeasure with this style.

God, you are tremendous. You created vitis vinifera grapevines and you didn't intend its fruit to be left out in the fields in the last week of October, with nets and fences to prevent your other creatures (birds, deer) from harvesting it when it's ready.

You created the annual cycle of generation and rest in these vines that arguably reaches perfection in northern California, where you bless us with dry summers and all the water we need in winter. You have planned a schedule that works, and all we have to do is have faith in it.

I never really thought about whether or not you actually drink wine, which is one of your greatest gifts to us. I know many believe that you do, which is why they offer it to you as a blessing.

After last weekend, I agree with them. I think you do drink wine, and you prefer balance and elegance.

Having already received so many blessings from you, I am loath to ask for too much. But I would be grateful if you would speak to the hearts of the winemakers who left their fruit out too long, and to the tiny number of influential critics who pushed them into it. Nothing dramatic like a plague on my account, please! However, I will not presume to know your methods. Sometimes a grand slam is needed, but other times only a sacrifice fly. Speak to them, and show them how they might show respect for your gift of grapevines by making the type of wine you intended.

Thanks again, God. You have spoken, and the wise will listen. Amen.

Monday, October 25, 2010

And now, 300% new oak!

Here's how Bodegas Balbas made its 2003 Ribera del Duero Alitus Reserve.

It spends 3 years in new oak barrels: 1 year in American oak, 1 year in French oak, and 1 year in a special barrel made of American oak heads with French oak staves.

In other words, 300% new oak! A new record!

Wow, talk about one-upmanship! All those Argentines who age their Malbecs for a year each in two different new oak barrels (200% new oak) must be rending their garments and wearing sackcloths. Ignominious defeat, you namby-pamby under-oakers.

Don't believe me? It's on Balbas' website; they're proud of it.

I tasted the wine at the Wine & Spirits Top 100 event in San Francisco (still the best wine-tasting event in town), and guess what it tastes like? Give up? Oak! Yeah, there's some dark cherry fruit and nice hints of dark chocolate. But if you like oak, and many people do, why settle for less?

Kudos to the producers for discovering something missing from the wine market, and giving us what we deserve.

In light of this, here are some more items I'd like to see:

* Single-grape Cabernet Sauvignon. Each grape is individually washed and dried before being individually crushed into a tiny fermenter with a single commercial yeast cell. Each bottle is made by combining the best 500 of these individual lots of Cab. I believe Harlan Estate is working on this.

* Winemaker essence red blend. A celebrity winemaker works out in the fields, then runs 3 miles fast on a treadmill positioned over the freshly crushed grapes, adding her essence to the wine. "I'm getting cherries, berries, and a fascinating savory, gamy note ...."

* Underwater-processed Albarino: A few bottles of Rias Baixas wine are sunk to the bottom of the sea for two months, then rescued and sold for a lot more money.

Ooops -- that last one already exists (Raul Perez did it). Blink and you miss the latest wine trend. 400% new oak, I can hardly wait!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Organic wine standards could change for the better

The Huffington Post occasionally notices wine, but politics are its main gig. When it does run a wine piece, it's apparently edited by people who don't know anything about the topic; some of its wine pieces have been embarrassing.

This week, the Huffington Post ran an innocuous, poorly written and edited piece about organic wine that nobody seemed to read; there are no comments.

Yet it's actually a huge story, about US law regarding organic wine possibly changing for the better.

Here's the deal. Currently, US law does not allow wines labeled as "organic wine" to contain any added sulfites. This is bad because sulfites preserve the fresh fruit flavors in wine. A wine without added sulfites is vulnerable to spoilage, and in any case can not be expected to last long on the shelf.

US law is out of sync with European law. The French in particular recognize the necessity of adding sulfites to wine; most of the "organic wines" you see from France have sulfites added.

This silly restriction is the reason I (and other wine writers) have discouraged readers for years from buying wines labled "organic wine." Instead, if you care about the environment and the way your wine grapes were farmed, I encourage you to drink wines labeled "made from organically grown grapes," or biodynamic wine.

The reason US law developed this way is because the federal bureau in charge of US wine law (now known as the TTB) is usually reactive, rather than active. The TTB doesn't make policy; instead, it responds to petitions from businesses to make changes, such as creating new American Viticultural Areas.

I've been told the original applications for an official "organic wine" designation on US wine labels were led by anti-sulfite zealots at a time, decades ago, when few wineries cared about organic wine because it was a tiny niche. Most wineries didn't want to use the label anyway, so nobody fought very hard over how the regulations were written.

Now, organic anything is a big category, and more wine companies want in. But they want to rewrite the standards to allow added sulfites so their wine won't smell like dirty socks after a year on the shelf.

On the surface, this sounds like a Huffington Post story -- wine companies want to weaken organic standards.

But look at the company that, according to the story, has made the proposition. It's not The Wine Group or Gallo or Constellation: it's "Organic Vintners," a tiny wine importer that apparently has two employees (they haven't returned my calls.) And right on its home page, the company brags that one advantage of organic wine is that it's low in sulfites. This is not an agribusiness.

That said, the size of the companies here is immaterial. What matters is that many consumers' desire for a wine made through responsible, safer farming is being held hostage by a tiny minority who think sulfites are bad.

Ronnie Cummins, director of the "Organic Consumers Association," wrote the Huffington Post piece. I'm sure he's well-meaning; organic food standards are under constant attack from agribusiness. But he clearly knows nothing about wine, because he writes a lot about the USDA and doesn't mention the TTB, which has jurisdiction over wine labels. It's not clear to me from reading his piece that he has ever had a glass of wine in his life.

Wine lovers can't let people like this decide on standards for wine labels. I want "organic wine" on a label to mean something other than "unpreserved wine that probably tastes bad." I want it to mean what it does in France: "lovingly farmed wine made from grapes not exposed to pesticides and herbicides."

I want to throw my support behind Paolo Mario Bonetti, Organic Vintners and their attempt to change US organic wine label standards for the better.

So my first call (metaphorically speaking) is to the Huffington Post, to do a better job on this issue. Assign a real reporter and a real editor; don't let somebody who knows nothing about it write an opinion piece.

And Paolo, give me a call. I'm on your side.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Charles Smith Wines explains the lawsuit against my readers

I want to thank reader Jason Vance, a Utah wine lover, for sending me a copy of the email below and giving me permission to print it. It explains a lot. I have removed the email addresses and phone numbers so they won't get spammed, but otherwise it's unedited.

For those of you who need the background, here's my original post about Charles Smith and here's the post about Smith and K Vintners suing readers of my blog.

Charles Smith: Here's an offer. Drop the lawsuit against my readers, and I will give you 700 words on this blog to say whatever you want. I retain the option of editing out profanity, obscenity or other offensiveness. Otherwise, go to town. You have my card; email me.


From: Janna Kline Rinker <(charles smith wines' email address removed)>
Date: October 13, 2010 5:13:56 PM MDT
To: (Jason's email address removed)
Cc: Charles Smith (email address removed)
Subject: Your email

Hello Jason,

Thank you for your note, although it was obviously disapproving of what you claim are our actions we have a policy to get back to everyone no matter what.

I wanted you to know that we have not filed any action to specific commenters or to bloggers, and that is evident should you read the entire story. We believe that the anonymous commenter is someone who had a mutual non-disparagement agreement with the winery and unfortunately something that should have been kept private was made public.

Again, we have not taken any legal action toward any bloggers, in fact we've done nothing but take them out to dinners, invite them to parties and be nothing but really nice to them in general! We've received negative reviews before and will in the future, of this we have no doubt. Fortunately for us, most are positive!

Your remarks about Utah puzzle me. I work with a broker there and do know that people in Utah drink wine and in fact have been trying to do more business there, it just takes a bit longer than other states. My broker was not familiar with your group and he has a great portfolio of domestic and international wineries. Their website is, you should check it out if you've never worked with their wines.

In addition, you are still welcome at the winery should you change your mind. Perhaps you would find for yourself that we are nice people and really just want to make great wine!


janna kline rinker
the director - west and international
k vintners | charles smith wines | charles & charles
m: (phone number removed)
o: (phone number removed)
(email address removed)
visit us:

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

More unnatural wine and other notes

Get 1/2 off shipping when you buy Italian wine in quantities of 6 bottles or more with code "blake23"
Wine Business Insider had an excellent story yesterday describing a new whiz-bang winemaking gizmo that, if I understand it correctly, uses heat and a vacuum chamber to remove the character of grapes.

The idea is that underripe grapes can have bell pepper characters removed. The resulting beverage will have a little higher alcohol because its sugars are concentrated.

It's not a reach to say it will be jammier. Ripe fruit + vacuum + heat + sugar = jam, right?

I guess I'm supposed to wring my hands about the future of wine. But it's telling that this machine is in Lodi, source of fine $7.99 reds, but a little challenged at the high end of quality. If somebody's drinking a $7.99 California appellation Cabernet, I don't think they care about native-yeast fermentation, and neither do I. Enjoy your beverage.

The question is, will high-end California winemakers soon see this as another way of getting more intense, concentrated, higher-octane, smoother $150 Cabernets?

Dan Berger recently reported in his newsletter that some high-end wineries are harvesting grapes overly ripe, fermenting them to dryness (can't do that with natural yeast), removing some of the alcohol through reverse osmosis for barrel aging, then adding the alcohol back in. It sounds like light-beer processing, but Americans love light beer.

My colleague Remy Charest did a great piece for Palate Press on natural wine in which he seems to intimate that the wine media cares a lot more about what goes on behind the winery doors than the public does. I think he's right, but that's no reason for us to stop talking about it. But I do have to keep this in perspective: I predict nobody will comment on this post who doesn't either write about wine or work in the wine industry. If you're a "civilian" and you care about this stuff, let me know.


Congratulations to Crushpad, which claims to make more than 1% of all commercial wine in the U.S. (Not by volume, by unique SKUs.)

For those who don't know Crushpad, it's a Napa-based business that allows anyone -- yes, you too -- to make small amounts of wine from quality grapes, with advice and support from their in-house pros. It has allowed folks to transition from making a few cases of Viognier for their friends to making a few dozen cases of commercial Viognier that they now have to figure out how to sell.

Crushpad has been responsible for 3,247 different labels filed with the US TTB. In 2010 alone, Crushpad received approval for 787 different wines. These are not just different labels on the same juice, but unique small-production wines.

It's part of the reason I could walk into a restaurant three blocks from me recently and not recognize a single label on the wine list -- that hadn't happened to me, I think, ever. Bully for Crushpad for not only letting a lot of people realize their expensive dreams, but for keeping even wine geeks on our toes.

But memo to Crushpad dreamers: I don't care if it cost you $30 to make that Monterey Viognier, I'm not paying $60 for it on the wine list. There's a reason they call it "economy of scale." Count on losing money until somebody -- like the folks below -- notices you.


I'll admit that, cravenly, when I got "The New Connoisseurs' Guidebook to California Wine & Wineries" by Charles E. Olken and Joseph Furstenthal and noticed there were four pages recommending wine blogs, I wondered why this one wasn't listed.

But then I started looking for some of my favorite wineries and discovered that I'm in excellent company.

Here are a few wineries not listed in the 456-page book:

A Donkey and Goat
Anthill Farms
Black Kite
Keller Estate
Linne Calodo
Natural Process Alliance
Scholium Project
Vision Cellars
Wind Gap

Those are just a few that I thought to look for; I'm sure there are others. It's a pity because the book has nice, concise summaries of wineries' backgrounds, and I'd like to know more about some of the wineries above. You might note a common theme: many, but not all, are part of the "natural wine" movement, which to my mind makes them more, not less, attractive to "connoisseurs."

Hey, Charles and Joseph, try reading a few more blogs, you might learn something.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Yankees are Bordeaux, the Giants are...?

I made a mistake last weekend while teasing Eric Asimov on Twitter about his unsophisticated taste in baseball teams.

My mistake was not in razzing a guy with such an erudite palate for supporting the Goldman Sachs of baseball; it was in my analogy. I said "Yankees= Screaming Eagle." But I was wrong, and I apologize to Screaming Eagle.

The Yankees are first-growth Bordeaux: entitled gentry with an expectation to be among the best every year -- which they usually are. Sparing no expense, they're priced out of the average person's budget, but they just don't care; they have more than enough wealthy fans willing to prostrate at their feet. They like it when countercultural types disdain them; they prefer the world separated by class. (If they do deign to hire an unruly servant -- a Giambi, for example -- that ruffian must clean up and respect his masters.) They're timeless, age-worthy, formidable and admirable in a cold-blooded capitalist way.

The Rangers, on the other hand, are edgy, fast, with a dark side barely suppressed. They've underperformed for their entire history and they're wildly unpredictable now, with the potential for greatness or to completely unravel. They're a combination of bumpkins, rebels, military types and dopers. They are cool-climate, wild-yeast Syrah from a foggy part of Mendocino County.

The Phillies are respectable, predictable and solidly built, strong in every facet, giving a good performance every year. If they have a weakness, it is susceptibility to aging. But they have rabid fans who will not desert them even if the rest of the country is against them, and they continue to rack up decent scores. They are Napa Valley Merlot.

So what wine are the coolest baseball team on the planet this year -- the San Francisco Giants?

They're complex, with lots of character. They have the reputation for aging but in fact their best players are fantastic when young. They're easily the most fun. (How can you not love Timmy Lincecum, whose response to being whistled at by Phillies fans ragging his long hair was, "I must have a really nice butt"? Lincecum is the anti-Yankee.)

Until last night, every one of their games in postseason, as well as the preceding week, had been a tense, well-played, low-scoring classic. They are the connoisseur's team. A middle American might want more power; a conservative might complain that they're not completely dry. They're on the knife edge of ripe enough, torturously so.

They are obviously a product of their terroir. From the deadpan announcers to the senior-citizen "ball girls," this is a team that just screams "San Francisco."

The Giants are Riesling. It's tempting to declare them to be Champagne, but The Gray Market Report is a highly respectable wine blog, and in the wake of two celebrations and counting, I will not encourage or condone cannibalism. Sometimes a man has to take a stand.

Riesling it is. And tomorrow's another vintage.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Endorsements in California election 2010

This isn't a wine post, though wine does play a part in one endorsement.

I had a hard time voting this year because my local daily, the San Francisco Chronicle, shirked its responsibility. I had to rely on the scraps the Chronicle gave me, superior but non-local endorsements from the Los Angeles Times, and admirably comprehensive coverage from the Bay Guardian, which is way too far left for me.

If you're a California voter, you face the same dilemma. I put some time into my choices and have decided to share my decisions and reasoning.

I'm a registered Democrat but an independent thinker with libertarian leanings. I voted for Schwarzenegger for governor four years ago (I did not vote for the recall) and think he's done a pretty good job; I wish he was running for the Senate. And of course I'm very pro-wine.

Here's how I voted Friday (early, at San Francisco City Hall), and why:

US Senator: Barbara Boxer
The Chronicle refused to endorse a candidate in this race, which spurred me to do this post. I don't have a vocabulary snarky enough to express my disgust with the members of the Chronicle editorial board who are drawing a salary but refused to do their job on the most important race on the ballot. The US Congress might hang in the balance, and the Chronicle expects us to do what, hold our head between our knees and wait for it to end?
To use baseball terms, Boxer is a replacement-level Democrat. She's not a leader or a coalition builder, she's not a great writer of policy, and she doesn't seem all that bright. She offers a reliable party-line vote, which any Democratic functionary could do. We could have a better Senator, for sure.
But is it Carly Fiorina? She's smarter than Boxer and a better speaker, although I don't find her policy discussions in depth or compelling. But look at her record: She took over HP when it was a strong company. The stock price fell, thousands were laid off, it's a much weaker company now, and she got a huge payout when she left. She's a "successful businessperson" in the same sense that George W. Bush was; yes, she was in charge of a big business, but that business didn't do very well (unlike Meg Whitman's.) I don't see any reason to reward her for that with a Senate seat.

California Governor: Jerry Brown
About Meg Whitman: This office would have been soooo easy for her to earn on merit. Brown is a retread, party-machine candidate who didn't start campaigning until recently. Whitman spent a lot of her own money campaigning for months beforehand.
But what did she say, when she had our attention? Nothing, except bad things about Brown. I've seen more than 100 TV ads of hers, but I don't know what she stands for.
So we look at the record. Brown was an adequate governor, neither great nor terrible. He was probably the best mayor Oakland has had in decades, and a surprisingly tough-on-crime guy too. He has been a decent attorney general. I don't think I'll get a great governorship from him, but I don't think he'll be awful either. He's a known quantity.
Whitman's a wild card. Ebay was fabulously successful under her. That said, her reputation there was as an autocratic bully, which won't work as Republican governor of a Democratic legislature. And nothing in her campaigning style has countered that impression.
Schwarzenegger tried governing by fiat in his second year, got swatted down by various unions, and retrenched, using a work-with-the-enemy approach. He has years of practice; he's married to the opposition. I don't get the sense that Whitman has ever been forced to work with somebody who disagrees with her, and that's a prerequisite for this job.

Lieutenant Governor: Gavin Newsom
This was my second-hardest decision. Newsom tends to be all talk and no implementation, and it's tempting to reward Abel Maldonado for risking condemnation by his own Republican Party to get a budget bill passed.
Ultimately, I let wine be my guide. Newsom is a wine lover who once owned a wine shop and co-owns a winery, Cade, that is a leader in environmental responsibility. Besides, this job is all talk and no implementation.

Attorney General: Kamala Harris
This is the most interesting race on the ballot, between Harris, the San Francisco DA, and Steve Cooley, the DA in LA. The SF Chronicle and LA Times both wrote convincing endorsements for their local candidate.
To summarize, Cooley is by far a better manager, while Harris is an idea person who wants the state to address its high recidivism rate.
Some have tried to make this election about the death penalty, which Harris opposes (I'm pro-death penalty). That's focusing on a far less important issue than the one Harris is correctly talking about: We are imprisoning too many people for too long, and we simply can't afford it.
One of the biggest problems about combining crime and punishment with politics is that it's easy to win political points with "toughness." Unless we're going to give someone the death penalty or a life sentence, they're going to get out sometime, and after several years in the overcrowded hellhole of California prisons, with no rehabilitation services to speak of and no re-introduction, they're going to rob us again.
We need a more pragmatic system, with as many offenders as possible in home detention, paying for their own food and shelter, and possibly taking community college classes online so they don't have to commit crimes to support themselves.
Either of these candidates would do a good job. Cooley, frankly, would probably be better for the next four years. But we desperately need a huge philosophical change in the way we view the prison system, and maybe Harris can start to make it.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction: Larry Aceves
Another fascinating choice, this time non-partisan, between a career politician with teaching experience and a career educator. The LA Times swayed me with this endorsement.

Insurance Commissioner: Mike Villines
The Chronicle won me over with this endorsement, which suggests rewarding this Republican for his independence. Makes me wonder where the person who wrote that was when it came time to make a choice for the Senate.

US Representative: Nancy Pelosi
I wish she had used the power of her office to get us some federal goodies for the city, other than that stupid curving train line from Chinatown to the ballpark. But there's no real other choice here.

Secretary of State, Controller, Treasurer, Board of Equalization member: I voted for the Democratic incumbents. If they had been screwing up, we would have heard about it.

State Propositions:
19 Legalizing marijuana: YES
Of course it's a Yes! It's not perfect legislation, and the Feds can still impose federal law. But come on, in 21st century California, nobody should be in prison for growing, owning or smoking marijuana. We don't have the prison space. And we could use the tax dollars from what would instantly surpass wine grapes as a cash crop. We don't get many chances in a lifetime to vote for paradigm-shifting legislation; this is one.
Addendum: The Obama administration, through US Attorney General Eric Holder, has issued fightin' words about this proposition.
Shame on you, Eric Holder. I thought your boss represented democracy. And what happened to "change"? You're taking the same stance as J. Edgar Hoover.
This proposition allows Californians to send a message about whether or not we think marijuana possession should be a crime. The Obama administration is trying to intimidate us into saying something that we don't believe.
Ignore the eventual outcome for a moment; that will take years to shake out. Ask yourself that basic question, because voters might not in our lifetime get another chance to answer it. A Yes vote will lead to more legislation; a No vote ends the debate.
My response to Eric Holder: Yes We Can.

20 Redistricting congressional district: YES
The only good argument against this is that if you're a Democrat, it lessens the party's power in gerrymandering. Bad argument: If Democrats have the numbers, they'll win majorities anyway, and if they don't, they shouldn't.

21 Vehicle license surcharge for state parks: NO
This type of ballot measure is why this state's finances are screwed up. Voters should not micromanage where our tax dollars go; what if there's a crisis, but we can't touch this money? That's why we elect representatives. I wish I could vote for a ballot measure that would outlaw this kind of ballot measure.

22 Prohibits state from borrowing funds from local governments: NO
See 21

23 Suspends air pollution control law: NO
A cynical initiative funded by polluters to get out of complying with a well-written, necessary law.

24 Repeals legislation regarding business tax liability: NO
See 23

25 Allows budget to pass with simple majority: YES
This is the most important ballot initiative. The state is paralyzed every year in passing a budget because of the 2/3 vote requirement. It just doesn't work; we have to change it. Please, if you ignore me on every other endorsement, vote Yes on this. I'm begging you.

26 Requires 2/3 vote for fees: NO
Hello, state budget crisis here. This is going to make it worse, not better.

27 Eliminates state redistricting commission: NO
See 20

Judicial races: The interesting one is for Superior Court Seat #15 between Richard Ulmer, recently seated, and Michael Nava, running against him.
This is another important election The Chronicle wimped out on, leaving me to parse the Bay Guardian's reasoning. (My sincere thanks to the Guardian for doing the most legwork.)
There are two issues here. Where do you stand philosophically? Nava is more liberal. And, do you think a sitting judge who hasn't screwed up should be unseated?
I'm not sure where I stand with these guys on issue #1; I believe I'm between the two of them. But I don't like judges running for office at all, and think contested elections for judgeships are a terrible idea. We want judges independent, not pandering for votes. Unless you're really, really liberal, I think you should vote for Ulmer, even if he's more conservative than you want.
I never know how to vote in the other judgeship elections. I don't like to vote Yes for somebody I know nothing about. The LA Times recommended Yes votes for the Supreme Court candidates, and that's good enough for me. I had a fit of snark in the voting booth Friday and voted No on all the associate justices, figuring that if somebody wanted to mount a last-minute recall campaign, they could use my vote. I don't have the information to seriously recommend a vote one way or the other, and for that I blame my local papers, including the Bay Guardian.

State Assembly: Tom Ammiano
He's further left than I like, but he's earnest and hard-working and will respectably represent his constituency.

Board of Education: Again The Chronicle let me down, leaving me with the Bay Guardian, which is far to the left of how I feel about education.
I parsed the Guardian's reasoning and read this non-judgmental Chronicle story, and voted for Natasha Hoehn, Margaret Brodkin and Hydra Mendoza.

Board of Supervisors, District 8: The biggest issue for SF supervisors is trying to get grownups who will act responsibly about governing the city. When Willie Brown was Da Mayor, I found the childish leftists on the Board amusing and not a terrible counterweight to his amoral backroom dealings. But with Newsom as Mayor, somebody has to be the grownup in this city, which is why I was generally happy with termed-out Bevan Dufty.
I can't trust either the Chronicle -- way too suburban -- or the Guardian -- way too unrealistic -- for Board of Supes recommendations.
I voted Scott Wiener first, followed by Rebecca Prozan. I didn't vote for Rafael Mandelman because he sounds a little too Daly for me. For some, that's an endorsement.

San Francisco measures:
AA $10 additional auto registration for transit: YES
It's not that much money, and we have a ways to go in improving transportation in this city.

A Earthquake retrofit bonds: YES
I don't know what the argument against this would be.

B Requires city employees to pay more for health care: YES
Hell yes! The rest of us are paying more for health care, why does the guy who gives me a traffic ticket or processes my library card get a free ride at my expense? Seriously, what's so special about city employees, that they should get unlimited perks?

C Requires mayor to appear at Board of Supes: YES
I don't know if it will make government better. But it won't make anything worse, and it would be fun to watch.

D Allows non-citizens to vote: NO
This is an example of San Francisco being wayyyy too liberal. You want to vote? Become a citizen. If you're not invested enough in this city to pursue citizenship, you don't deserve to make decisions regarding its future.

E Election Day voter registration: NO
It's not a hardship to register ahead of time, but it WILL be a hardship for already registered voters if a bunch of people show up on election day to try to sign up. Don't penalize those of us who are registered already.

F Reduces health board elections: YES
Seriously, I vote every time -- or thought I did -- but I didn't know we had health board elections.

G Changes MUNI payment formula: YES
MUNI drivers are overpaid and unmotivated, and that's the single biggest transit problem in the city. Once again, voters, I ask you: What makes city employees more special than the rest of us?

H Prohibits elected officials from serving on party central committee: NO
This might be unconstitutional. But even if not, I don't get it. Why wouldn't I want my party's leaders to be my party's leaders?

I Allows private parties to pay to open polls on a Saturday: NO
Privately sponsored elections are a slippery slope. Voters who work all week can vote by mail now; that's sufficient.

J Increases hotel tax rate: YES
I vote for this reluctantly, because every city always socks out-of-towners for its own problems. But we gotta get the money somewhere. Sorry, Iowans. At least have a freshly muddled cocktail while you're here.

K Maintains hotel tax rate: NO
The anti-J.

L Prohibits sitting or lying on sidewalk: YES
I'm amused by the loud controversy over this unenforceable law. Care Not Cash -- Gavin Newsom's signature plan from a few years ago -- was a real attempt at legislation to address the homeless problem here. For all the debate over this law, I don't expect it to do anything to decrease the number of homeless on our streets. We still make this city far too attractive for drifters. It's not like the homeless ever spend any real time in jail anyway; this just gives cops a tool to make them move along. But I'm OK with that. Maybe if we make them keep moving from the best begging corners, they'll decide to go to Portland for a while. I hear Portland's real nice.

M Requires police foot patrol: NO
Does this city have the money for this? Foot patrols are generally a good idea, but this initiative was written for the wrong reason, as the anti-L. Maybe in another election it would be worth talking about, but let's not rush into dictating how police allocate resources as a reaction to something else.

N Increases top-end property transfer tax: YES
We gotta get money from somewhere; sales of buildings over $5 million is a better place than most.

That's it; those are my endorsements. I think the biggest political problem we have in this country is that we don't talk about politics enough, especially with people with whom we disagree. This is my attempt at a civil discussion, and hopefully at actually helping people with a ballot make some hard choices.

Whether you agree with me or not, please vote.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

How corporate executives taste wine

Top corporate executives don't think like the rest of us. A friend who's a management consultant tells me that many real movers and shakers are divorced. They're driven people who don't have the time or inclination for personal lives.

What they do have is money -- piles of it. They have earned luxury and expect it.

I recently watched an instructional video that made me feel a little sorry for these people. You wouldn't think there's a lot of sympathy to be had for people who regularly spend stockholders' (and some taxpayers') money on the most expensive Cabernet on the wine list.

But that's how I felt after watching "Think Like a Genius: Wine Master," starring Master Sommelier Tim Gaiser.

Gaiser isn't the problem. He's earnest, he knows the topic as well as anyone, and he doesn't talk down to the viewer while describing how to taste wine in the most basic of terms.

The shocker is just that: that somebody would spend $49 for a DVD course in learning how to taste. Not learning about the differences between Burgundy and Bordeaux -- but learning to look at the color, sniff the aroma, and sip the wine. In other words, learning to tell the difference between milk and Coca-Cola.

Are corporate executives so inured to sensory input that they're unable to smell lemons in Chardonnay without this video? If so, fortunately there's a workbook with the video so they can measure their progress. Action item!

Of course, just because the San Francisco-based (sigh) Everyday Genius Institute made the video doesn't mean people are actually ordering it. But Gaiser makes his living in large part by teaching corporate classes, so there's obviously a market. And I'm going to give the Institute the benefit of the doubt in knowing the way their audience thinks.

Which is this: wine tasting is a skill to be conquered. An opponent to be vanquished. A merit badge to be earned.

And it puts forward Gaiser as somebody who's better at it than you are: One of the top tasters in the world! "To watch Tim taste wine is like watching magic happen," the chipper Institute CEO says. (If that's true, what would it be like to watch Tim reach ecstasy? Better than doing so yourself?)

The video keeps talking about "goals." What are your goals in tasting? That's pure-corporate speak: no activity is worthwhile in itself.

Yet each time I start to mock the DVD, I realize that it was made by people who know their audience. I have sat at tables with wealthy people who bragged about the inaccessible wines they have in their cellars: "I've got a vertical of Screaming Eagle and a case of 1961 Cheval Blanc." That sort of thing. Invariably they don't offer to open one. And now I know why.

They don't know how to taste it! More to the point -- they think there's a way to taste it, which they haven't mastered yet. Sort of like the black belt of tasting. And if they work hard enough, eventually they'll earn that black belt and be able to kick my ass under the table with their awesome tasting prowess.

Well, if you're a CEO and you're reading this, it's true. There is a way to taste wine. And you're doing it wrong.

I learned the way while living in Japan, on a monastic tasting retreat. We wore nothing but loincloths in January and bathed in the cold rivers each morning at dawn. We did calisthenics, chanted and meditated. And then, The Master showed us the way, if he felt we were worthy of the lesson. Only after a week of fasting were we trusted to begin tasting things by ourselves. But I can't tell you what the way is; it cannot be described in the English language.

So you better spend the $49, Sir. And see if you can charge it to taxpayers the way you did with those wines you bought at Auction Napa Valley.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

An open letter to Washington state voters

Dear Washington State voters:

Do you drink wine, beer or liquor?

If so, you should vote "Yes" on initiative I-1100.

There's a lot of beer-distributor money being spread around Washington to try to confuse you. There's a competing initiative, I-1105, that was written by Washington Beer and Wine Wholesalers to protect their monopoly. And there's a lot of sanctimonious blather on the airwaves right now about health and alcoholism and minors drinking.

You know who's funding that blather? Beer and wine wholesalers. They don't really want Washington residents to stop drinking, or to drink less. What they want is to ensure that they keep getting a 30% cut.

It's hard to blame any company for trying to protect its business model, even if that model is an outdated government-supported monopoly. What gets under my skin is outright lying about intentions. If wholesalers want people to drink less for public-safety reasons, they don't need voters' support: They can simply stop selling beer and wine.

Costco has been the main supporter of I-1100, and it's not doing so out of public interest either. Costco wants to buy wine without a middleman so it can offer lower prices that encourage people to join.

But unless you're one of the 33% of American adults who don't drink, your interests align with Costco's.

Why should you want to pay higher prices for wine, beer and spirits? You could argue that there's some societal benefit in doing so if the premium you're currently paying over prices elsewhere in the country went to the state. That's an ongoing argument in Pennsylvania.

But in fact, that huge percentage you're now paying to beer distributors is going into corporate coffers. And when it is spent on government, it's not used on schools: it's given to your public officials in an open (and often successful) attempt to influence them.

Moreover, Washington is a sophisticated state in just about every way: urban planning, transit issues, and most political debates. And the quality of top Washington wines is second to none.

But your state-run system of liquor shops is an anachronism. It's the kind of nanny-state government expected in places where most citizens aren't well-educated. At least 36 American states believe private businesses, and their employees, are capable of selling liquor responsibly. Do you believe Washingtonians are incapable of doing so?

Don't let money-grubbing beer distributors confuse the issue.

If you don't drink alcohol, at all, go ahead and vote against I-1100. Keep Washington on the level of fellow control states (and intellectual capitals) like Alabama, Idaho, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Utah, Vermont, Virginia and Wyoming.

If you drink alcohol, remember what happened when a nation of voters let sanctimonious arguments get the better of them 100 years ago. Drinkers voted for Prohibition; it couldn't have passed without them.

Vote your own interests. Don't stand with the 33% who teetotal and see your state as Alabama or Utah. Have some pride and confidence in your state.

Vote "yes" on I-1100.

Sincerely yours,
W. Blake Gray

ADDENDUM: Sean Sullivan has done an excellent job of breaking down the bill's actual impacts. His piece, which does not urge a vote one way or the other, is better than mine.

(PS: Drink more Washington wine! Seven Hills, Hedges, Pacific Rim and Chateau Ste Michelle are some of my favorites. But that's a topic for another day.)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ping-pong showdown at Linne Calodo

Matt Trevisan of Linne Calodo is one of Paso Robles' hottest cult winemakers, and has the most interesting personal story I've heard there. He started making wine when he was working as a forklift driver and living out of his car, and sold all of his assets to buy labels and capsules for his first vintage.

But I don't care about all that (though I promise to tell you more about it). I just want to beat him at ping-pong.

Matt, 38, has two tables at his winery and a selection of paddles. He says he plays about 10 games a day. When a ball rolled away under barrels of his fermenting wine, he'd say, "Don't worry, I've got another." And he plays ambidextrously.

What made me think I could take him? I'm no Forrest Gump. In fact, I'm not all that great, and hadn't played a real game in 9 years. But when I had the best job of my life at an Internet 1.0 company -- (free Webvan food deliveries, sushi parties on Fridays) -- I played several games a day against players much better than me, so I'm not intimidated by superior skills.

Matt's a laid-back surfer type from the San Diego area (Escondido), but he does know the mental game. As soon as I showed interest in playing him -- while we were tasting some of his Sticks and Stones Rhone-blend wines, $68 cult items snapped up by his mailing list -- he asked me what my strategy was. What are my best shots. What are my weaknesses.

Matt's winemaking persona is completely different from his ping-pong. Before he would consent to play me, he ran off a list of strict house rules: all serves must be open-handed, no this, no that.

For winemaking, though, his favorite statement is "There are no rules." He says it over and over. He crushes straight into barrels and says he never makes a barrel full of any one grape variety: instead, he fills it about 75% full with one thing, and tops it off with something else, chosen mostly by its pH, but also by taste and feel.

He ends up, a few months after harvest, with 150 barrels of different combinations of Rhone grapes, which he tastes and then figures out how he wants to blend. It's so casual that you'd think he was at one of Paso's stoner-sounding labels, Chronic Cellars or Dark Star. Instead, he regularly scores more than 90 points from the Wine Advocate.

I pointed out this dichotomy and it was the only time he got slightly defensive: not when I asked about his home life or finances or the fact that, for me, his wines could have a little more acid. Matt takes ping-pong way more seriously than he admits.

"I don't have that many rules (for ping-pong)," he insists. "I need them because people come in here and try all kinds of tricks." And Matt usually gambles: if the visitor loses, they have to buy some of his wine, which ain't cheap. Of course, one could say the loser wins, which is probably why he gets so many games going.

I visited him with two sommeliers from Seattle and Matt insisted on giving us lots of barrel samples beforehand. The sommeliers dug it -- they loved the wines -- but I saw battle tactics, and surreptitiously tipped many down the drain, trying to keep my head clear. I did get in a good game of fetch with his dog, whose preferred toy is the rubber bung used to close a barrel (one of his barrels is either oxidizing or has a little dog spit ... just kidding, he has spares.)

Matt wanted to talk about wine ("The estate vineyard is planted to 20 1-acre blocks. It's nightmare farming") and picking ("We do 'gringo picking.' My office staff has to help out.") I was antsy to play; I think he noticed, like a pitcher holding the ball while the batter fidgets.

Finally we got down to business.

Early on the game unfolded in a promising way: I would leave a ball bouncing high, and Matt, anxious for the macho point, would slam it too far and miss the table.

He played to my backhand, which was weak, and my aim was off enough that I couldn't make him cover the whole table. But with his wildness, I was hanging in there, and my serve started to come back.

I led him 16-14, going into his serve, but I melted down like Armando Benitez. Or, he picked it up a notch -- he served five points in a row. I didn't recover; my last serve was a meatball to his forehand, and he put it away. I lost 21-16, gnashing my teeth with the feeling that I could have had this game.

The sommeliers pointed out that, as a gambler, Matt was probably hustling me. He denied it: "My muscles were tight," he said. "Besides, I play better from behind then ahead. I have a problem with losing leads."

To wash the bitter taste of defeat from my mouth, he opened a few more wines. I tended to like the ones he disavowed -- the '06 Sticks and Stones, which he thought had too much acid, was my favorite: raspberry fruit, good spiciness, a cooked-meat gaminess and a pretty bergamot note. The label lists percentages of Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah but Matt gives that surfer laugh when you ask about them, because with his method of winemaking he can't really be sure. I also loved his 2000 LC Red, made the year before he said he was influenced by Australian Shirazes into making his wines more "flamboyant."

Big, low-acid wines are the stereotype of Paso Robles reds, and it would be shocking for an Old World drinker to hear some of the ways Matt describes wines. About the '06 Sticks and Stones, he said, "It's fine to drink it with food, but it's not going to be as good on its own."

But let's be realistic here: That's how many Americans drink red wines, as stand-alone beverages. At least these wines are very smooth on the palate. Perhaps because they're co-fermented, they're practically seamless.

Jake Kosseff, wine director at Wild Ginger in Seattle, loved Matt's wines, saying, "They've got this beautiful full palate. The midpalate of wine is what makes them hedonistically wonderful. These wines have that in spades. Nothing flies out in one direction or another. There's a subtle interplay of flavors, but there's a lot going on."

And then there's Matt's personal story. He was a college roommate at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo of Justin Smith of Saxum; Smith's father gave Matt his first winemaking book. Matt liked the area, so when he graduated with a degree in biochemistry, in 1995 he took a job with Justin Winery (no relation) for $1000 a month. "When you're so cheap, people can't fire you," he said.

The job was theoretically forklift driving, but the winery was small and expanding, so he helped plan and build buildings, handled some bulk wine transactions, did cellar work, etc. He started sleeping in his car on late nights, rather than drive home for an hour, and eventually gave up his apartment for a while and lived in it.

In 1997 he took at better-paying job at Wild Horse as a forklift driver, and was disappointed to learn that was all they expected of him: no punchdowns from the DOF ("dork on fork.") He made 20 barrels of wine with Smith because he was bored.

He and Smith started Linne Calodo together; Smith eventually split off into Saxum, where the wines have even higher ratings and higher prices than Matt's. Matt managed to save $4000 by the spring of 2000 but had to spend it all on labels and capsules because nobody would extend credit to the DOF. "What else was I going to do?" he says.

Finances have changed for Matt. For a decade he's been selling 4000 cases of wine, much of it over $50, almost entirely through a mailing list -- which means no distributors or retailers take big chunks of the money. And he saves on labor by doing so much himself. Matt drove his own backhoe while building his new, functionally attractive, wooden winery -- high ceilings with outflow fans reduce his need for air conditioning in Paso's 100-degree summer days.

A few miles away there's a newish winery whose owner made a fortune in investing and casually dropped $60 million of it to build a winery/monument to capitalism. I prefer rooting for guys like Matt.

But I'm not actually rooting for him, not in ping-pong. He's better than me, I acknowledge it. And he plays all the time. And he may have been hustling me.

Nonetheless, I can take him. Maybe I can't beat him 5 out of 9, but in at least one single game, I can take him.

An Open Letter To Matt Trevisan: You may be smiling now, but this isn't over.

Ping-pong photos taken by Stacie Jacob

Friday, October 8, 2010

Hollywood stars talk wine on TV

To date, there's never been a really successful wine show on broadcast television. PBS is about to try a new angle: Hollywood celebrities talking about wine.

I learned Thursday that WNET, the PBS station in New York, is soliciting wine samples for early episodes of the show, which I heard is tentatively called "Wine Talk." The celebrity planned for the pilot is Stanley Tucci, best known recently as Julia Child's husband in "Julie and Julia," but dear to my heart as Secondo in my favorite food movie, "Big Night."

The show is supposed to have a panel of celebrities moderated by Food & Wine magazine's wine editor Ray Isle. While it would be produced in New York, the expectation is that it would run on PBS stations nationally; that's the way PBS does things.

My source told me that Robert DeNiro is another of the celebrities WNET is in negotiations to have on the show. My dream would be to see him do it in character in his role from "Angel Heart." (A Riesling is a window to the soul ...)

I love the idea. Ask any winemaker within easy driving distance of Hollywood -- Santa Barbara County, in particular -- and they'll tell you of performers who have come to their tasting rooms and shown surprising knowledge of wine. In fact, as I was hearing about this show, I learned of Natalie Portman visiting a Paso Robles tasting room, where the winemaker claimed (jokingly or not) she was carded. I wonder if she was flattered.

Moreover, nothing against Gary Vaynerchuk, whose affection for unusual wines moves some people past Cab-Chard conservatism. But I don't think the wine world benefits from having him as its sole TV spokesperson. Can't wait to see Ray and Stanley telling us about how red fruit in Zinfandel, instead of black fruit, actually makes it better with food. And making it funny and entertaining. Bring it on, WNET.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Riding the Napa Valley Wine Train

I might be becoming the wine writers' Don Rickles. Lately I've fallen into this shtick where people invite me to expensive restaurants for free and I make fun of them.

So when I got invited by Swanson Vineyards to ride the Napa Valley Wine Train, I was certain snarky hilarity would ensue. Especially when I found out that rolling lunch with Swanson winemaker Chris Phelps would normally cost $154. Wow, that seemed like low-hanging fruit.

Unfortunately, a little problem developed on my way to the one-liners.

I actually had a really good time. The Wine Train serves really good, locally sourced food. Their wine selection in the tasting bar (4 tastes for $10) has some hard-to-find gems if you know what you're looking at. Their wine shop in the train station is quite good, with plenty of small-production wines. Executive chef Kelly Macdonald has a wicked sense of humor and a great sense of balance, since he has to work around open flames in a tiny kitchen on a moving train.

And they didn't even know I was coming, so they hadn't spruced up for my benefit. It seems like, while pricey, the Wine Train is pretty fun on any ordinary day.

About the most hilarity I could get was the tiny tug-of-war that played out all day between Phelps, whose winery had invited me in the first place, and the Wine Train, which was very interested in me once they figured out who I was. "Let's talk about this Merlot," Phelps might say, while the train's wine director Ryan Graham would counter with, "Do you want to go look at the kitchen now?" Of course, with me and my wife on board for 3 1/2 hours, there was plenty of time for both to get their point across.

So here's what it's like to ride the Wine Train with Chris Phelps (left); I'll try to get off some lame one-liners anyway. All aboard!

10:45 a.m.: While waiting in the train station, we're all given tastes of two wines: a $12 Pinot Grigio and a $10 red blend. They're OK. There aren't any spittoons, but nobody spits while tasting on the Wine Train. The whole point is that you don't have to drive.

The Wine Train isn't really transportation, though. You go up to St. Helena, and then you turn around and come back; you get lunch (or dinner) along the way. There are a bewildering range of cruise-ship-like add-ons, such as winery tours by van. But I don't see why you would take them. It's pretty expensive to be on the Wine Train, and the view of the vineyards is good. So why take away from your time on board?

The crowd taking the train on a Friday morning is multiracial and multinational with a wide age range; the median is about 40. A Japanese bus tour takes the train; so does a video game company celebrating a product launch. Some people are talking about how they generally drink beer, but I overhear others talking about their previous visits to Napa Valley. I don't think this is a wine-geek party, but some people know more about wine than I expected.

Phelps tells the crowd about Swanson ("a small family-owned winery," neglecting to point out that the family made its money in frozen dinners) and talks about the crazy weather of 2010 ("It's a very Bordeaux year. I think we'll be able to pick at phenological ripeness at lower sugar. We'll have lower alcohol. In general I'm pretty excited.")

Phelps says his winery specializes in Pinot Grigio, unusual for Napa Valley, and Merlot. "Everybody loves Merlot, that's why you're here, right?"

A young game programmer says loudly, "Nobody loves Merlot."

When Phelps says they also make Cabernet, the programmer says, "Yay, Cabernet."

Graham tells us about the train, which train geeks will hate me for not knowing the details of. I know the track was laid in the 1850s, and the dining cars are restored Pullmans from the World War I era, and they're beautiful. One reason the train can't run lunch and dinner 7 days a week is that it needs a lot of down time for maintenance. "She needs to be treated like a dowager," he says.

11 a.m.: We board. This takes a while, as it's sort of like airplane boarding, by section. People on the train get their lunches at different times, have different tours, get on and off at different points. Continental Airlines would never be able to successfully manage all these agendas.

Graham says the well-oiled machine his organization has become results from treating its employees well. The captain of our car has been there since the beginning; 21 years now. Our server has worked there for 14 1/2 years.

I quickly see why they want longevity in employees, because carrying bowls of soup in a moving train is a skill.

11:30 a.m.: Lunch starts for us. Some people eat their apps in one car and move to another for their main. We're sitting with Phelps so we stay in one place the whole time.

Here's our menu:

Swanson Vineyards Napa Valley Pinot Grigio 2008
paired with
Watermelon and Mango Tuna Poke

Swanson Vineyards Oakville Chardonnay 2009
paired with
Fresh Monterey Bay Shrimp and Local Sweet Corn Soup

Swanson Vineyards Oakville Merlot 2006
paired with
Grilled Filet Mignon of Beef and Seared Foie Gras with a Zucchini Carpaccio

Chocolate Strawberry Cake
The tuna poke's good, and the Pinot Grigio is good with it. Macdonald had about a month to play around with the wines, and he says, "The Pinot Grigio was very straightforward. That's why I went with the wild flavors on the plate. If the wine is wild and busy, I have a little fat. I have the beef."

The second course is the highlight; the corn soup is amazing. Macdonald used some complicated technique wherein he milked the corn kernels and then soaked the cobs in the milk to extract more corn flavor, but I didn't get all the details because I was greedily eating it up. I hadn't even known Swanson made Chardonnay, and in fact it's only 300 cases for the tasting room. Very nice wine; good lemon fruit and balance.

Phelps had never made white wines before landing at Swanson in 2003. He's one of the foremost Merlot specialists in California, having interned at Chateau Petrus in Bordeaux before becoming winemaker at Dominus and then Caymus in Napa Valley, where he made only reds. He said whites were a challenge: "I thought it would be easy. There's a lot of subtlety involved. It took me a couple years." In fact, I've been tasting Swanson's Pinot Grigio for several years and have noticed an improvement; if you haven't tried it in awhile, give it another whirl.

The very rare filet seemed the biggest challenge in the kitchen, what with cooks trying to work beside each other in a space not much wider than a doorway, and all the usual physical hazards of a high-volume kitchen. Macdonald (right) told me Top Chef did an elimination challenge on the Wine Train, and that seems cruel, though if you can cook in that kitchen, you can cook anywhere.

While we're eating, we keep on rollin'. The train starts in an ugly industrial part of the city of Napa but soon enough you're right beside Highway 29, and the 10 feet or so elevation of the train gives you a great view in all directions. Phelps points out that beautiful red leaves in vineyards actually indicate a virus problem (and there's no Santa Claus either, spoilsport.) He's relieved when we pass Swanson that none of his coworkers is holding an embarrassing sign, as apparently happened on several of his other annual voyages.

I really enjoyed the '06 Swanson Merlot; well-balanced, good fruit, and a good match for the meat. After finishing my glass, I take a tour of the train and spot the young programmer who spoke out against Merlot. Phelps had earlier told me a story of converting a woman in a coffee shop by bringing her a glass, so I instigate -- why don't you bring this guy a glass? He goes to get one.

Meanwhile, I check out the tasting bar. Among your four tastes for $10, you could settle for Buehler White Zinfandel, but you could also have Heidi Peterson Barrett's 2009 La Sirena Moscato Real, Morgan Twain-Peterson's Bedrock Stellwagon Vineyard Zinfandel, or 2004 Pahlmeyer Chardonnay, and some other nuggets.

I like riding on the back of the train; passengers in cars on the neighboring Highway 29 wave at you and some take your photo. However, I wouldn't have enjoyed taking the cheap $49.50 ride-only fare, because that's in an open-air car, which is always risky with Napa Valley weather; hot in summer, cold in winter. It's better to have open air when you want it, and be able to go indoors when you need to. Also, if you're not going to eat, drink and luxuriate, why wouldn't you just drive up and down Highway 29 in your own car?

Here's my big finish: Phelps showed up in front of the programmer's group of friends with a glass of Merlot, which he dared him to try. Happy ending? Nope: the wine was "too sour," the programmer said.

One of his friends said, "I'll take it. I like Merlot." And he sipped it happily as the train chugged southward. Happy ending after all.