Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Running with the Devil: Supporting the 100-point scale

I may have a new career: Seminar Bad Guy.

My latest and greatest appearance in this role was last weekend at Taste Washington, where I was the only sap the organizers could dig up who would sit in front of a room and defend the 100-point scale for wine ratings.

It's true: I don't have the cash
As a contrarian, I admit -- it was great. A whole roomful of people showed up essentially to disagree with me*, some of them vehemently. Christophe Hedges read a prepared statement and gave me some bumper stickers.

* With the notable exception of Allen Shoup, perhaps the most important man in Washington wine history, who supported me. Thanks, Allen! 

I crushed their arguments like bugs.

I really enjoyed typing that. No, what actually happened is that I agreed with about 90% of the complaints people have -- about wine criticism. I just don't think you can blame a rating scale for those complaints. Not that any number of self-appointed Internet censors who hate the First Amendment* haven't tried.

* As I told Steve Heimoff this week, there's nothing I hate more than Guy No. 1 telling me that I can't give Guy No. 2 information that he wants.

I'm going to list some of the complaints I remember, and my rejoinders. Forgive me if I don't get to them all, as I was too busy parrying to take notes.

* White wines don't do as well in ratings as red wines

That's a critic's personal choice; there's no inherent reason this must be so. Wine Spectator might believe that only oaky Sauvignon Blancs are worthy of scores higher than 91 points, but another critic or organization (and I'm one) can say a crisp, balanced, delicious Sauvignon Blanc without oak is totally capable of scoring as high as any wine.
I have only gone to 100 points once, and that was for a white wine; I went to 99 last month, and that was for a white wine.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Sustainable wine grows while organic wine flounders

On a panel I sat on Saturday at Taste Washington, Pepper Bridge winemaker Jean-Francois Pellet talked about how the previous owner of a vineyard he works with had killed everything with herbicides, and the soil was lifeless. "There were no earthworms at all," he said.

The vineyard may be years from being able to qualify for either organic or biodynamic certification. But the new owner has been using biodynamic techniques for five years, and Pellet proudly described a phone call he received when the owner saw the first earthworm. Both of them were giddy.

Our moderator, master sommelier Shayn Bjornholm, said, "Growers are weird," and everybody but me laughed.

The exchange typified the varying levels of interest in green farming in the wine industry, a topic on which I have a related story this week in Palate Press. I'm not going to rewrite the story here; please go there and read "Defining Sustainability." (When you're done here of course.)

But I do want to emphasize something I wrote in the story: the people who care most about green farming are usually vineyard owners, followed closely by winemakers.

What I didn't write is also important: the most important customers of the wine industry, the folks who buy the most expensive wines, don't seem to care at all. Bjornholm may have been simply delivering one of his quips -- that's why he's the moderator; I'm only funny if you like zombie sex jokes -- but he was also essentially saying what high-end consumers say: I don't care about your earthworms; how does the wine taste?

This is why the wine media -- the big ratings-giving magazines -- cares very little about the specifics of green farming. It's hot to debate biodynamics, but the focus of the discussion for wine publications is generally whether the wine is better -- and whether there is any scientific basis for this -- but NOT whether it's healthier for people or the planet.

You usually see that focus only from environmental writers, who generally don't understand the wine industry. I started writing about organic wine largely because of uninformed nonsense I read about it on sites like the Huffington Post and the Examiner. But, unfortunately, I don't think that most current buyers of "organic wine" read articles about wine; they read articles about organics.

Paolo Bonetti recently estimated that while organic foods make up 3.5% of the food sold in the US, wine made from organically grown grapes accounts for just 0.35% of wine.

I believe the wine industry's focus on sustainable wines, as well as biodynamic and "natural" wines, is because of the failure of the organic wine category to catch on with wine lovers, and that this is because they aren't currently allowed to add sulfites, so most of the wines don't taste great. I did not connect these dots in the Palate Press story, but I believe they are connected.

I also want to strongly emphasize something I did write in the story: that the vast majority of wineries currently striving to be "sustainable" are doing so with the purest of intentions. But people in the industry and in the wine media should stay vigilant because it will only take one large greenwashing winery to erode public trust in whatever official category the greenwasher uses, and because there are multiple definitions, "sustainable" is one of the easiest certifications to get right now.

Wine Spectator has in my opinion the best stable of news reporters among the mainstream wine magazines. I would love to see them take on this issue and make it their own. Maybe I should write them an Open Letter?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Drink Sake Tonight FAQ

Drink Sake Tonight on Friday, March 25 is a casual benefit to help Japan, and the sake industry really needs help.

Here's a portion of an email that sake expert John Gauntner got from Nanbu Bijin brewer Kosuke Kuji:

"For the time being, no one in this area feels like drinking sake. To avoid secondary economic damage, we want to earnestly ask everyone around the country and in other countries to eat and drink products from the Tohoku* region. That is the most supportive thing you can do for us."
* Tohoku is the name for the large, 6-prefecture region hit by the earthquake and tsunami.

And you can take part! All you have to do is buy* a bottle of Japanese sake ... and drink it!

* I was told that more than one Asian restaurant in the Bay Area asked importers for sake donations to serve at benefit dinners for Japan this past week. That's missing the point: let's have Japanese companies donate to Americans to benefit Japan?

The Twitter hashtag is #drinksaketonight, so you can share/cajole your friends into joining, at least virtually.

The question I've been asked most frequently is, What will you be drinking?

I have already decided on my own sake for Friday evening: my go-to, Dewazakura Dewasansan Junmai Ginjo. I like it for its wine-like fruity, bright character, with strong apple notes and a mouthfeel that balances weight and refreshment. This sake is widely available in Bay Area sushi bars and is a comfort sake for me.

Here are some other FAQs and answers:

Is Japanese sake affected by radiation?
Not yet in any case. All sake in this country today was shipped before the earthquake and tsunami. I'll be keeping an eye on this story for the future.
Keep in mind that there is plenty of sake made in western Japan, far from the nuclear site. The sad thing is that the businesses that were most hard hit by Mother Nature are also the ones whose products people will most worry about -- if they can rebuild their businesses at all.

Should we stockpile sake in case supplies are cut off?
If it were wine, I would. But sake is a fresh product; most sakes are best within one year of the release date. There might be a world sake shortage in a year or two but hoarding now will just mean you will eventually drink less delicious sake.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The battle over organic wine: an update

Why isn't there more organic wine? That was the title of an article I wrote earlier this year for the Los Angeles Times, and also of a seminar I participated in last week at the Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim.

I didn't realize, standing on stage like a fool explaining the three-tier distribution system, that most of the audience were people who already make either USDA Organic wine or wine from organically grown grapes. The organic wine world is tiny and insular compared to the universe of organic products, and the Expo was a great example.

I hadn't been to the Expo before, and if you're an organic consumer like myself, it was a dream. Practically every company whose logo you see in Whole Foods was there, and plenty you haven't heard of yet. The Expo took up two whole floors of the massive Anaheim Convention Center; in about 8 hours over two days I didn't see it all. With thousands of healthy foods and drinks to sample, who could?

So it was depressing to go to the associated organic wine tasting and see only 13 companies in a small room in the neighboring hotel. I tasted a few good wines -- notably from La Rocca Vineyards, a no-sulfite winery that I'll write about in more detail later -- but frankly, much of what I tasted was, well, meh.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Robert Parker's tasting notes

Picking on Robert Parker is a bandwagon I've never really jumped on before, but I just got invited to sit in on a panel on wine scoring this weekend at Taste Washington. I will be the designated villain* who actually scores things on the 100-point scale.

*On my seminar registration form I insisted "Hangings to be conducted in effigy only."

So I thought I'd check in with how Parker's doing with his tasting notes these days, and whether you can tell by his description what he scored the wine.

Last week Donelan Family Wines spent some money sending out a press release trumpeting reviews Parker issued this month; all the wines scored between 89 and 100 points. I don't know the winery and haven't tasted the wines; all I'm interested in today are the reviews.

I am listing two reviews below. I have taken off the first sentence of each for reasons that will be clear after the jump. Before you take the jump, guess what Parker scored each wine. (Note: italics in the review are mine.)

2009 Donelan Cuvee Moriah (72% Grenache with 16% stems, 20% Syrah with 35% stems and 8% Mourvedre)
This wine reveals zesty acidity as well as an unmistakable kirsch liqueur style. It reminded me of a lighter vintage of Chateau Rayas, which is a lighter-styled Chateauneuf du Pape even in a powerful vintage. The light ruby-hued Cuvee Moriah offers up intense notes of sweet black cherries intertwined with herbal nuances. As the wine sits in the glass, tell-tale notes of raspberries (which I often associate with Rayas) also emerge. If tasted blind, this different, intriguing effort would undoubtedly be thought to be a French southern Rhone rather than a Sonoma County product. It should age effortlessly for 6-8 years.

2007 Donelan Richards Family Vineyard (100% Syrah, 100% whole clusters)
This Cote Rotie-like effort displays remarkable floral/lavender characteristics along with a dense purple color and an awesome bouquet of spring flowers, blueberries, blackberries and white chocolate. It hits the palate with a crescendo of intense, ripe, concentrated black fruits interwoven with barrique, charcoal and burning ember-like flavors. With staggering quality and full body as well as modest alcohol (14.2%) for a wine of such great ripeness, this riveting 2007 Syrah should provide immense pleasure over the next 15+ years. Don’t miss it!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Drink Sake Tonight: A casual benefit for Japan

Here's an easy way to contribute to Japan's recovery.

I'm calling on all wine lovers to have sake, instead of wine, for one night next week.

Friday, March 25 can be "Drink Sake Tonight."

How will this help? Japan's sake industry is one of the nation's most traditional, representative businesses.

Many small sake producers barely eke out a living as it is. With Japan facing reconstruction, premium sake will be a luxury that domestic buyers might forego. Buying Japanese sake will keep producers and exporters employed. Even one night of American wine lovers drinking sake for a change will help rescue at least one Japanese industry from this staggering blow.

I mentioned this plan to someone I know at JETRO, the Japanese export agency, and she said: "I heard many famous sake breweries have been broken in the earthquake and gone with the tsunami. Also, surviving breweries have been damaged. So, if you write about Sake, it helps and cheers up them (including me)."

I already try to drink more than my share of sake, but I'm just a little guy in my corner of the Internet.

So I'm calling on all my fellow wine and food writers to publicize Drink Sake Tonight on Friday, March 25.

If any restaurateurs want to hold casual benefit dinners, with proceeds to the Japanese Red Cross, I will maintain a list of those on my own blog, and I encourage all wine and food writers to post lists of such benefits for their own local communities.

It's not much, I grant you, but who among us has helicopters or freshwater processors? Drinking Japanese sake is something we can do, and I desperately want to do something.

Drink Sake Tonight on Friday, March 25. Tell your friends.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Where to donate to help Japan

Japan-based food writer Elizabeth Andoh is using the following automatic reply to her e-mail. I don't really have much* to add, except to say I miss you Japan; get well soon.

*If you pray, consider adding a request for the 50 brave volunteers who have stayed at the nuclear plants trying to bring them under control. Their heroism should not go unrecognized.

"If you wonder how you might offer assistance, I urge you to consider a contribution to one of many organizations providing disaster relief here. You may wish to consider one of these:

Japanese Red Cross:

Doctors without Borders:

International Medical Corps:



Japanese Salvation Army
Thank you.
KANSHA shimasu (in appreciation)

Elizabeth Andoh
A Taste of Culture
Tokyo & Osaka, JAPAN"

Monday, March 14, 2011

Top natural foods at Natural Products Expo West

The big buzzwords at Natural Products Expo West last weekend were probiotic, gluten-free, antioxidant, detox, superfood and raw.* Kind of like a carrot, yet there were few carrots in sight.

*Also hydrate. As if there's something inadequate about water.

The first thing that struck me about the foods at the Expo, the largest gathering of natural product producers in the country, was how much floor space was devoted to junk food. I attend the Fancy Food Show, where it doesn't matter whether companies profess health claims or not, and that's an unending cornucopia of chocolate, ham and chips. Here, it was more like fair-trade chocolate, soy ham and veggie chips.

That said, cruising the floor of this show in Anaheim, trolling for free samples, is like being a kid in a macrobiotic superfood store, if you're into that sort of thing. Which I am, although each day, after sampling lots of meat alternatives, I found myself craving seared animal flesh.

The show exists mainly for retailers to find new natural products; the mainstream food press doesn't give it the attention that is paid to Fancy Food Show, mainly because the food press as a group doesn't like the taste of hemp milk. Having tried it yesterday, count me with the mainstream on that one.

I'm a little sorry to say the highlight for me wasn't actually the food. I only buy natural soaps and toothpaste and the like, and every producer of "my products" was there. I got to ask Lily of the Valley why they stopped making my favorite sunblock (not profitable), tsk tsked over Dr. Bronner's unnecessary line extensions, and walked away with a bag full of tiny sample packets of Biokleen laundry soap, Auromere toothpaste, etc.

I passed on the opportunity to bring home samples of most of the supplements because they're like green heroin: you're supposed to take most of them every day, accepting on faith that you're not adding a steep monthly bill for a placebo. On Saturday I sampled at least a dozen probiotic products meant to help one's digestion, and Sunday I woke up with a stomachache. And I took a bunch of brain enhancers too, yet I still don't really understand

But I did find plenty of food products that I enjoyed, and I want to share a few here. I can't claim they were the best in show (except in one case), but they were both tasty and apparently good for you.

Carpe Diem Kombucha, Quince flavored: I'm drinking it as I type this. It's excellent because it's not too sweet, like a quince (which nicely covers the usual kombucha flavor); it's lightly fizzy, has a slight hint of tea flavoring, and would probably be a great replacement for wine with dinner. In fact, the label touts it as "a sensible accompaniment to any meal." I can see this; I can't understand how people drink sweet sodas or even worse, fruit juice with meals because it would seem to obliterate flavors in exactly the same way people complain about over-ripe Zinfandel. The only things I ever drink with meals are wine, water or tea, but for this I can see making an exception.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

What it's like to taste Domaine Romanée Conti

Receive 50% off shipping when you buy wine online in quantities of 6 or more bottles with code "blake16"
Last month I finally had the pleasure of tasting the wines of Domaine Romanée Conti, a holy grail for wine geeks -- the most expensive wines in the world, from the most coveted real estate.

I got home from that tasting and my friend Glenn asked what it was like. I replied flippantly; I don't remember what I said. Glenn chastised me, telling me he wanted to experience the wines vicariously through me.

So I wrote this column about tasting DRC for Wine Review Online. I'm not going to repeat it here, but it's as honest as I could get about the experience. I will confess here that I woke up in the middle of the night tortured by self-loathing over the ending of the piece, because it really happened and it was really embarrassing. And then I went ahead and told everybody about it, because what the hell, done is done. The catharsis helped; now I'm sleeping just fine, thank you. At least until the pennant race starts.

What I do want to give you here is a taste of the tasting notes. Wine Review Online survives on subscriptions for its tasting notes, so my notes for all 8 wines are behind their pay wall. This is the kind of thing you might get to vicariously enjoy if you subscribe.

I picked this one because it's near the middle of the range both in price (they go from $255 to $3725) and in the score I gave it (all the wines I scored between 93 and 99; exactly 4 were higher than this.) And, while it's one of the shorter reviews, I like the description. After you read the column, you'll see why I want to try to regain some of my professionalism. Sleep well.

Domaine de la Romanée Conti, Romanée-St.-Vivant, Burgundy, 2008 ($1070)
Importer: Wilson-Daniels
Point score: 94
The RSV's aroma is so delicate -- raspberry, some oak, mushrooms -- that its savory attack in the mouth comes as a shock. The primary flavor is raspberry, but it's so tangy, and the smoked meat note is so strong, that it reminded me of raspberries left in a smokehouse surrounded by pork ribs. Noticeable tannins suggest that it will reward long cellaring.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Fun numbers: Statistics on wine drinking worldwide

Vinexpo last month released some interesting statistics as part of its 14th global study on the international wine and spirits markets. I haven't seen them widely reported, so I thought I'd summarize some of them here.

Top 10 Wine Producing Countries:

France maintains a tiny lead over Italy for No. 1. But the news is that China has jumped all the way to 7th, ahead of Chile, South Africa and Germany, and -- hard as this is to believe -- just behind Australia.

In fact, Argentina, No. 5, makes 50% more wine than Australia.

The US is a solid 4th, making nearly twice as much wine as Argentina but 1/3 less than Spain.

The list: France, Italy, Spain, US, Argentina, Australia, China, Chile, South Africa, Germany.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Wine Spectator defends its 99 rating of 2007 Napa Cabs

Last week, I wrote that Wine Spectator was wrong in giving a 99-point rating to the 2007 vintage of Napa Cabernets.

Yesterday Wine Spectator Executive Editor Thomas Matthews posted a response to my post in the comments. I'm afraid most people won't see it, and his points are interesting, and besides, I'm kind of an old-school guy when it comes to giving people a chance to respond when I've written something negative about them.

So I'm reposting his comment below, verbatim except for a few asterisks, which denote points I will disagree with afterward. And I have one very large question that Matthews didn't answer, but I hope he'll come back to this post and do so.

"Rating a vintage is not an easy task, as any honest critic will acknowledge.

Making a blanket judgment on the basis of sampling a few wines, even a few dozen wines, on a single occasion is, in my opinion, an act of hubris.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Chinese buy Bordeaux wineries and set them straight

This flag stands for wrongful repression ... and good wine
In a new twist in China's love affair with Bordeaux, Chinese companies have begun buying Bordeaux wineries so that they can export their entire production to the Middle Kingdom.

Agence-France Presse last week published an interview with Tesiro CEO Richard Shen Dongjun, whose company recently bought a 54-acre estate in the Médoc region (but not one of the sexier subappellations).

The estate, Chateau Laulan Ducos,  is more than 500 years old, and makes a little over 12,000 cases per year, all of which will now go directly to China. This is just the latest of five such Chinese chateau purchases in Bordeaux, including one by a Chinese state-owned firm.

What I found most remarkable was this quote by Stephane Toutoundji, who consults for two of the Chinese-owned chateaux.

"(Chinese consumers) prefer smooth wines without too much tannin and not too much oak, and they hate bitterness,"* Toutoundji said. "They want charm, elegance and balance."

Friday, March 4, 2011

Terroir and Pinot Noir: their relationship is fraying

If there is a taste of terroir in Pinot Noir, it's disappearing every year. Ironically, one expert says that's because winemakers are getting ... in a technical sense ... better.

Larry Brooks
Larry Brooks, winemaker at Tolosa in Edna Valley and a popular consultant, was kind enough to send me a transcript of his keynote speech for the Southern Pinot Noir Workshop in New Zealand in January.

Brooks, who made wine at Acacia from 1979 to 1998, has about as much experience with Pinot as anyone outside of Burgundy.

In the speech, Brooks got fairly technical for his winemaker audience, but he has some lyrical points as well, and I'm going to summarize them here:

* A German study showed that there is much more correlation between soil type and aroma than between soil and flavor; in other words, you can smell terroir more than you can taste it. This has been backed up by studies in both France and California.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Wine Spectator got the 2007 Napa Cab vintage wrong

As much as one might disagree with a critic's rating of a wine, it's impossible to say that critic is "wrong." If Jay "feed me" Miller thinks a wine is perfect, then it's perfect for him no matter what I think.

Vintage ratings are different. When a magazine publishes a vintage rating saying a certain region's wines are Great or 99 points or whatever for a certain year, that's a statement that should be universal. It's saying that almost all wineries have elevated their game for that year, and if you like them in an OK year, you should love them in this one.

A 99-point vintage should be obvious to everyone, whatever your favorite winery or style.

Wine Spectator got the 2007 vintage of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon wrong.

For some reason, America's leading printed wine magazine says 2007 is a 99-point year for Napa Cabs.

But it's just not true. And I'm not the only one saying it.

Eric Asimov was the first to publish his misgivings about '07 Napa Cabs in the New York Times this week. He's not alone: I spoke last week to more than a dozen wine writers from three countries who thought Napa's 2007 was weaker than the two vintages that surrounded it.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Dry Muscat, Desperate Housewives and Drake

Here's an inside-baseball story: it's about a good wine story I hoped to sell to a big publication, and why I'm glad I didn't try.

In other words, it's a story about a non-story.

Late last year I spent a delightful weekend at Chateau L'Hospitalet in Narbonne, France. The owner, Gérard Bertrand, invited me and some other writers to a truffle hunt. When it comes to truffles, I'm like a trained pig ... well, except for the "trained" part.

Anyway, we were all drinking a fair amount of Bertrand's wine at lunch on the day of the hunt. He has five different estates in the Languedoc and he's been a huge success in Europe with New World style wines: mostly fruit-driven, with mild tannins. I really liked his white Cigalus blend, which allegedly won some award for being the best white in business class, and I could see it. Good balance, nice fruit; perky yet elegant.

Bertrand was a rugby star, though he looks more like a late-40s Ian McKellen playing a tennis star in the movies: tall, slim, elegant, but ready to take action. His staff says he works all the time and, shockingly for France, expects them to do the same. One woman said he once burst in on her in the shower to ask for some report. An American would have sued; she did the job. Moreover, she reported the incident with a mix of admiration, fear and pride. Many of his staff bragged about how great it is that their team exceeds the normal French work day. But while happy, with Bertrand on the premises and a big weekend planned, they all looked nervous.

I digress from my non-story. So I'm yakking to another American about "The Walking Dead" or the Giants winning the Series or something when I overhear Bertrand saying his wine was on "Desperate Housewives" in the US, and his distributor wants 100,000 cases of dry Muscat.