Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Critics vs. Public: Who likes it sweet?

In every field, critics and the public have different tastes. You won't find many positive reviews of the highest-grossing films of the year, and in fact I was jeered once by critics at the Tokyo International Film Festival for my outrageous statement that "Titanic" wasn't a bad movie.

It's true in art: LeRoy Nieman retrospectives don't run at the Met, nor do collections of dogs playing poker. It's true in music: if it weren't for critics, would anyone listen to atonal classical compositions, free jazz or Elvis Costello?

And of course it's true in wine. This was brought home for me last weekend at Critics Challenge, a fine wine competition in San Diego, where the sweetness of many red wines was noticeably high.

I sat for part of the competition across from a serious wine expert who I enjoyed discussing the wines with. I, like many critics in the non-Parker class, do not like perceivable sweetness in red wines that are supposedly dry. But for my co-judge, these wines looked like a series of body blows; the judge's head would whip to the side, there'd be an exclamation, sometimes a grunt, often a "No, no, no!" I felt a little badly that I wasn't suffering as much.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Misc.: Critics Challenge, San Diego and top 10 TV shows

As you read this I'm heading to San Diego to take part in Critics Challenge, an interesting wine competition run by Robert Whitley.

The antithesis of the Concours Mondial, which uses statistics to de-emphasize the human element, Critics Challenge is all about individual taste. Any one taster can give any wine a gold medal, but you have to provide tasting notes, which is what the entering wineries are paying for.

Last year I shared a table with Rebecca Murphy. We were each poured the same wines, and if either of us thought a wine was medal-worthy, it got the higher of the two medals, along with a description written by the judge for use on websites, shelf talkers, keepsake lockets, whatever.

With a different set of judges this would be a very difficult competition in which to avoid all sorts of ethical problems. But the reason I look forward to Critics Challenge is the roster of judges; this is the most knowledgeable group of wine people I'll be around all year, all with impeccable credentials.

And now I'm going to see San Diego in a new light, thanks to the book I'm plodding through, James Michener's Iberia. Published in 1968, it's dated in some ways, but follow Michener's meandering style through a few hundred pages and you can't help learning some fun facts. I tweeted this one to an unamused Whitley earlier this week, and now I want to share it with you:

How San Diego Got Its Name
Many people know that the city was named after the flagship of Sebastian Vizcaino's fleet, which "discovered" the city for the Spanish in 1602. But how did the ship get that name?

Turns out it was named after a 100-year-old corpse believed to have cured the Spanish crown prince of a brain injury.

Here's the story, courtesy of James Michener. In 1562, King Felipe II (whose short-sightedness would reduce Spain from world power to poverty) had sent his son Carlos, the crown prince, to university in Alcalá.

On April 19, Carlos was sneaking out at night to visit "the attractive daughter of a porter" when he tripped on a broken step and fell down the stairs. He seemed to recover, but after 10 days he showed alarming signs of pressure on the brain.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Alcohol in wine: increasing in every country

My bloodstream's alcohol is also underreported
It's not news that wine is getting higher in alcohol. What is news -- from a research paper issued yesterday -- is how systematic and universal the trend is.

Moreover, EVERY country reports less alcohol on the label than actually exists in the bottle. It's interesting, at a time when people are looking for bold wines, that wineries worldwide apparently believe slightly lower alcohol percentages on the label will help the wine sell better.

And for as much heat as California wineries take over alcohol, the growth in alcohol percentage in the US over the last two decades is actually the lowest of any major winegrowing country in the world.

The research paper -- published by the American Association of Wine Economists and cowritten by four researchers from UC Davis* -- used data since 1992 from the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, which tests the actual alcohol content of every wine it imports.

* Authors: from UC Davis, professors Julian Alston and Jim Lapsley, PhD candidate Kate Fuller and research associate Kabir Tumber. From the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, VP George Soleas. 

There's a lot of great data in this study, which I would link to if I could. But I can't, so I'll summarize some of the most interesting points below.

* Alcohol is rising in wine in every country in the world much faster than can be explained by global warming.

* There are a few regions in the world that counter this trend, with alcohol actually falling since 1992: Burgundy (reds and whites), Oregon (reds only), Piedmont (reds only), Washington (reds only). Oregon reds have actually dropped by the most, although I wonder if that indicates a change in grape varieties; the paper doesn't address it. Piedmont's and Washington's drops were tiny, but that still sets them apart from the rest of the world. And, hurray for Burgundy!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A $275 Tequila that seeks to change the valuation of spirits

Gonzales holds the official Tequila tasting glass -- looks like a Champagne flute
Casa Dragones might be unique in the world of spirits: a really expensive liquor ($275 a bottle) that doesn't derive its pricing from its age, and doesn't taste like wood at all.

The creator, Bertha Gonzales, is the first official Maestra of Tequila. The financial backing came from Bob Pittman, the creator of MTV. It would have been easy for them to combine on a barrel-aged Anejo Tequila -- it's a hot category. But instead, they decided to create their own category.

The delicacy and elegance of Casa Dragones is striking, and marketing-wise, it's also daring. They have resurrected a category called Joven (young); it's a blend of unaged Tequila with some Tequila aged in new American oak for 5 years. But if Gonzales hadn't told me that, I would never have guessed; you can't taste or smell the oak.

I went to the website for K&L Wine Merchants and ranked all the spirits they sell by price. Here's what came up on the same page as Casa Dragones ($200-$260; they sell Casa Dragones at $250):
22 Scotches, the youngest 21 years old
12 Armagnacs, the youngest 35 years old
1 Bourbon, 27 years old
1 American brandy, 16 years old
5 Cognacs, 1 Irish & 1 Canadian whiskey, 1 Calvados, 2 Tequilas, 1 orange liqueur, all bragging of their unspecified age

In other words, everything else in that price range is pushing the taste of age, while Gonzales is pushing the taste of youth.

"There is a consumer who is looking for a product that doesn't taste like wood," she says. "We're trying to bring out the complexity the agave plant has to offer."

OK, but that does raise the question: Why is it $275?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Attention bartenders: Some cocktail contests are fixed

The 8 cocktails entered (ice has melted in some)
I was invited to judge a cocktail competition, and discovered it was fixed.

Here's what happened. A press release invited me to attend (and write about) a cocktail competition in San Francisco for a certain spirit I hadn't heard of; it was the regional contest, with the finals taking place on a Caribbean resort island.

I replied that I wasn't interested in standing in the audience, but would judge if they needed an extra palate. A couple days later the PR person contacted me to say they did need an extra judge and would be happy to have me.

I've judged cocktail contests in the past. They're great fun: less work than wine competitions, although you really can't spit. So I was excited when I showed up at the stylish downtown bar for the event.

I tried to interview the president of the company who created the spirit, but he wanted no part of talking to me, which struck me as weird. I was the only media of any kind there, and this guy in theory was trying to publicize his spirit, so why avoid me? It only made sense later.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Greek white wines: Perfect for summer

Greek white wines are great: crisp, food-friendly, often made from heirloom varieties unique to the area. I'm a big fan.

I don't have much to say today other than that, and some tasting notes. Sometimes you go to a wine event and get some sort of theme, like the harsh climate of Santorini or the lively character of the Malagousia grape. But more often you taste a bunch of wines, eat some lunch, and go home with a slight buzz. That's what sommeliers (and wine writers) do many weekdays. Usually I don't write about these events at all because this blog is more story-driven, and because I find long tasting notes boring. But did I mention I'm a big fan of Greek whites?

Because most of us are unfamiliar with Greek regions and to a lesser extent the grape varieties, I'm going to list the wine name, the region (not in bold), and the grape variety in italics. I'm sorry, but New Wines of Greece didn't give us retail prices.

Tselepos Mantonia Moschofilero 2010
Rating: 83 points
Lime fruit that turns a little bitter on the finish. Coppery. 12% alcohol.

Oenoforos Asprolithi Patras Roditis 2010
Rating: 91 points
With its chunky lemon aroma and light bodied, chalky and lemony flavor, this wine screams for white-flesh fish. I love the mineral scratchiness down the center of the tongue. 11.5% alcohol.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Why people don't complain about flawed wines

Yesterday I sat at a table full of wine professionals: 7 sommeliers and me. The adjoining table had 8 sommeliers.

We were served an obviously flawed wine, yet nobody said a thing to the presenters. We took tasting notes, discussed the wine, heard a presentation on its terroir, etc. It was a fascinating study in human behavior and explained to me why so few flawed wines are sent back in restaurants.

Here's what happened. Tormaresca hosted a blind tasting of 7 Aglianico-based wines from around Italy, only two from its company. The stated purpose was to increase awareness of the Aglianico grape, and we got interesting lectures from Tormaresca director generale Francesco Domini and Master Sommelier/author Evan Goldstein.

I was, I believe, the only journalist there along with about 50 Bay Area sommeliers. We each had 7 glasses in front of us. The idea was to try to identify, blind, which of four regions in Italy they were from. This was hopeless for me (I ain't Evan Goldstein) so I didn't even try, but I did what everyone else did and took tasting notes while we waited for the reveal.

Wine No. 7 immediately seemed off; my first note was "something weird here." It smelled like dried plums crushed into the dirt of a weedy backyard on a hot day. I said, just for my table mates, "Is there something wrong with No. 7?"

One sommelier at our table was a bigshot to some of the others, and was a loud personality. She said, "No, that's just the style." I shrugged and moved on; I like to smell all the wines before tasting any of them, so tasting No. 7 was the last thing I would do.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Scoring standards: Is more intense always better?

Is "intensity" in wine always a good thing?

Robert Parker certainly thinks so. He won't go above 95 points without using "intense," "powerful" or some synonym.

One might expect that at the Concours Mondial, the European wine competition that is perhaps the best-run in the world, the standards would be different. One would be wrong.

The Concours has the best rating system of any competition I've seen. They use a complex statistical system to track individual tasters, adjusting the scores relative to the group and also if ratings rise or drop relative to other tasters at different times in the day (i.e., you get tired and cranky, or get up on the right side of the bed.)

(Here's the list of this year's Best in Class winners, including a shocker: Best Red Wine is from Catalonia.)

While international in its choice of judges, the Concours is Europe-dominated, which makes sense as the consumers who pay attention to its gold medals are in European markets. (Europeans are always astounded when I explain the open hostility many Americans have for the continent; that European support for Obama in 2008 was a negative for him, for example. If I write a post like this and don't get at least one comment to the effect of, "Who gives a damn what a bunch of European wine experts think," it means I just don't have enough readers.)

So one would think that the categories would reflect the so-called European palate: Balance, minerality, acidity, that sort of thing.


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The best wines in the world this year?

I'm frowning 'cause my panel got no Best in Shows.
It would really be remiss of me to run 2 posts about the Concours Mondial, which I (and others) consider the best wine competition in the world, without listing its best-of-category wines.

One quirk of the Concours' statistically based judging system -- more on it tomorrow -- is that none of the 284 judges left Luxembourg last week knowing what had actually won. And unfortunately, Panel 24, where I sat, didn't draw any of these categories, so I can't give you personal impressions of the wines.

But I will say this about the Best Spirit: Good choice. I love Highland Park 18 Years Old, mainly for its deliciousness and long finish, but also for its story. The only reason so much of it exists is because the distillery is so far to the north in Scotland that it wasn't practical, when single malts didn't have the market they do today, to sell the younger whisky off in blends. Isolated in the frigid north, whipped by salty winds; it's an image that warms me every time I get to enjoy a glass. And yeah, it's really tasty.

I toyed with the idea of volunteering for the spirits panel this year, but ultimately chickened out, and am glad I did, because each time I walked by those folks had glasses of potent-looking clear spirits in front of them and dour expressions. You think you're going to taste 50 single-malt Scotches and reposado Tequilas and instead end up with a bunch of eaux de vie from Bulgaria or Bangladesh or wherever. The Highland Park must have felt like a gift from God.

I confess I'm not familiar with any of the wines other than the Gonzalez Byass Nectar PX, which is sooo rich and delicious that one sip should be satisfying for dessert. But I haven't met anyone yet who could stop at one sip.

But how about this: the best red wine in the world, from Catalonia? Wow. I won't believe it until I'm lucky enough to try it.

So here's the list of Best Wines, right after the jump (one more page click for me, but I won't make you click on a different page for each wine, like Forbes). Tomorrow I'll post about what the Concours' scoring standards are, and what I think they could/should be.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The narrow range of scoring wine

I love representing the Stars and Stripes abroad.
The Concours Mondial bills itself as the world's leading wine competition, beginning with the name. It has developed the most sophisticated system of judging in the world*, a system that always makes me think deeply about issues regarding the rating of wine.

* The Concours uses statistical analysis to try to track and respond to individual tasters' quirks. It's worthy of its own post.

The biggest this year, for me, was the narrow range of scoring. Everybody knows that American wine ratings have become compressed into an 85-to-100 point scale -- and American wine ratings are now the world standard, like it or not. The Concours system shows the foolishness of that, while encouraging some Parker haters into using an even more compressed range.

I also got to thinking about the standards we apply to ratings, and how easy it would be for a powerful critic like Parker's assumed successor Antonio Galloni to change the game of wine by changing the categories he respects. I'm going to address these topics in a separate post later this week.

Click on the photo for a closeup to see the categories.
At the Concours, while each of the 50 wines we taste each day are supposedly rated on the 100-point scale, in fact the ratings are divided into 10 categories (11 for bubblies), with a series of boxes for us to check. In theory, we're supposed to consider many different aspects of the wine: its intensity, "genuineness" and finish, for example.

I may write transgressively, but in games I'm a rule follower, and I enjoy checking the boxes where I believe the wine belongs. This leads to lower scores than I might give the wine at home, because I'm reluctant to give the highest possible score in most categories (visual categories are the exception). A wine with the second-highest score in the smell and taste categories, and perfect scores in sight, would get an 89, and that would be a wine I would enjoy drinking: good in every way.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Immigration: We need farmworkers, not felons

Americans won't do this for a living, which is why we need Mexican immigrants
In a move that will probably irritate everybody, President Obama has decided to enter America's immigration debate. I'm delighted, because the shouting has almost no intelligent voices on any side. I was reminded of that again recently by this story about how the California Democratic Party doesn't want arrestees' immigration status checked.

Let me state up front that I am extremely pro-legal immigration; I think we should grant maybe 10 times as many visas as we do. It's important to the wine industry because we wouldn't have California wine as we know it without Mexican farmworkers.

What I'd like to see the California Democratic Party arguing for is a farmworker visa. It could be temporary and seasonal, allowing experienced agricultural workers to cross the border to work harvests, and then go home to spend the winter. If there were no national borders, that's how farmworkers would operate; it's a natural cycle.

Instead, here is my party arguing that suspected burglars and rapists, etc., shouldn't have their immigration status checked. Why? Because we want to keep these people? Seriously? We produce so many burglars and rapists of our own. Shouldn't we protect their jobs by sending home the competition?

Monday, May 9, 2011

Domaine Sigalas 9-year vertical tasting

Dare I say it? That center label is Greek to me
Domaine Sigalas is one of the best wineries in Greece. It's on the hot, dry island of Santorini, where the vines grow right on the ground in a circular pattern that looks like wreaths. Founder Paris Sigalas actually came home to the island from Paris to be a schoolteacher and ended up making wine because he knew the local wines could be better.

There are red wines on Santorini, but the island is best known for its chalky, lemony, dry whites, the perfect seafood wines. The wines are so high in acidity that they should be able to age, yet most people think of Greek whites as a refreshing summertime white. That they are -- the 2010 is lovely -- but it was interesting to discover that 10-year-old wines were delicious as well.

Paris Sigalas
I attended the 9-year vertical tasting of Domaine Sigalas wines with an audience of about 50 sommeliers in San Francisco. It was interesting to hear them, and the panelists, try to describe the finish in a way that would induce a customer to buy it. I'm saying "chalky," but I'm not trying to sell wine. Some said "sweet bitterness," which made me think of baking chocolate. One guy accurately said, "The finish goes on and on, and when it finally ends you have to have another sip," which reminded me of crack, and that is a very successful consumer product.

Doug Frost, who led the seminar, said, "I think it's remarkable to have wines that are so strongly of place that they can be somewhat off-putting." Doug is a Master Sommelier but clearly he hasn't worked the floor in a while.

How about this: These are really good wines, surprisingly affordable, from one of the most inhospitable wine regions on Earth. They probably wouldn't be this cheap or this available if the European Union didn't support them as part of its cultural heritage. Thanks, EU. And thanks, Paris Sigalas.

I'll run the tasting notes below, but here's a summary: the wines should either be drunk fresh, or after 5 years. I found wines in the middle to have entered a dumb period. So if you have a 3-year-old Domaine Sigalas sitting around, put it in the back of the cellar.

Please note that these wines were presented in glassware, and we weren't given an opportunity to check the bottles; I got up and wandered into the back room to shoot the bottles I could find. I'm not saying this because I doubt the veracity -- were these wines REALLY born on an island in Greece? -- but because they were described in ways that I'm not sure were listed on the bottles; i.e., barrel-fermented, or single vineyard.

However, once I found the bottles I realized that I couldn't be sure of what was written on some of them anyway. The 2010 lists "Assyrtiko" as the varietal so I did that below, but any Santorini white must have 75% Assyrtiko, which would allow the varietal labeling under US law on all of them.

There's not much point in listing retail prices for the older wines as the will not be easy to find anywhere. Sorry.

2010 Domaine Sigalas Santorini Assyrtiko ($15): A nice, balanced, flavorful wine, with notes of chunky lemon marmalade, oyster shell and a slight saltiness on the finish that makes the lemon seem sweeter. (There is no residual sugar, Paris Sigalas said.) Makes me salivate for grilled white-flesh fish with olive oil and lemon.
Rating: 92

2009 Domaine Sigalas Santorini Kavalieros single-vineyard wine: Just goes to show you that a single-vineyard wine is not always better. It also has the lemon fruit and a definite saltiness, but the aroma is a little closed and the minerality not as acute. Not a bad wine, but not worth a jump in price.
Rating: 88

2008 Domaine Sigalas Santorini: This is the first of these wines to taste old, and for me it tastes decrepit: old paper, chalk, some dried lemon, but no freshness and a little sour. Doug Frost, who was leading the seminar, asked for a show of hands from a room full of sommeliers on which of the first three wines we liked best, and this was the overwhelming favorite, chosen by maybe 2/3 of the room. I have two theories about this: 1) Bottle variation, a problem I've found greater in Greek wines than others, which I think may have to do with the quality of corks, or 2) Sommeliers instinctively prefer the taste of age to youthful freshness. Bothered by being out of step with the group, I retasted this again and again, but it was consistently my least favorite of all 10 tasted.
Rating: 82

2007 Domaine Sigalas Santorini: This wine tasted less old than the '08, yet still old; more like a retired boomer than a WWII vet. The lemon fruit had re-emerged, with some leafiness, some pepper, chalk, and a tannic quality to the finish. Better hold it for another year and see what happens.
Rating: 86

2006 Domaine Sigalas Santorini: After 5 years, apparently, the wine comes out the other side of the aging process and re-emerges with fruit and secondary flavors in balance. It has those old paper/clay age notes, but also dried lemon and lemon marmalade, pepper and chalk.
Rating: 90

2005 Domaine Sigalas Santorini: Drinking beautifully, with dried lemon, pepper, clay, and a lingering chalky finish.
Rating: 92

2004 Domaine Sigalas Santorini (Barrel Fermented): Good and bad, the non-barrel fermented wines all tasted similar. Hitting this wine after 6 vintages of non barrel-fermented wines was a shock: It smelled like umeshu (Japanese plum liqueur), with notes of honey and toast and plum juice that weren't in the others. It also tastes sweeter than the others, again reminded me of umeshu, with a soft mouthfeel and notes of honey. Only some chalk on the finish kept it in the family. I really like a good umeshu (don't ask me where you can buy one in the US, I haven't seen one yet; my favorite is at this resort in Hakone) so I liked this.
Rating: 90

2003 Domaine Sigalas Santorini (Barrel Fermented): Unlike the 2004, this one tastes more like its non-oaked siblings, with notes of citrus, chalk and white pepper. Very chalky finish.
Rating: 89

2003 Domaine Sigalas Santorini (Not barrel fermented): The best wine of the day. It made me regret the wines that Paris Sigalas consigned to barrels that year. 2003 was a famously bad vintage in most of Europe, as extreme heat caused overripe grapes that Europeans had no idea how to deal with. Santorini is always really hot and dry anyway, and Sigalas' production notes say, "No heat waves occurred." It's lively, with preserved and fresh lemon, sea salt, oyster shell and that distinctive chalky aftertaste. I don't know if anybody has this sitting around, but if they do, grab it.
Rating: 96

2001 Domaine Sigalas Santorini (Barrel fermented): This one also tastes like umeshu, although it's much saltier than the '04; in fact it's really salty, which means it's probably great with food. The chalky finish links it to its siblings. Still drinking well.
Rating: 90

Thursday, May 5, 2011

This blog is now Certified

A month ago I wrote about taking the Certified Wine Professional exam at the Culinary Institute of America.

Last week I got word that I passed. I was going to wait until I had the hard-copy certificate in hand to brag about it -- the birthers need somebody else to doubt now, why set myself up? -- but I'm off to Luxembourg to judge at Europe's most prestigious wine festival, the Concours Mondial. So I'll run the short-form document now.

I redacted my address but otherwise it's as I received it. I'm happy with my written score; I got 5 questions wrong out of 120, and I can live with that.

I emailed Paul Dray asking for more detail about my practical tasting score of 83, which is passing (you only need 75%) but not as impressive as the scores received by most Napa Cabs. Now I have to worry about wines I'm trying to rate mocking me for my undersized score. (Maybe I have too much acidity? Not enough fruitiness?) But Paul hasn't responded, as he warned during the test session, saying, "You will never learn the identity of these wines."

What 83 most likely represents, of the three wines we were supposed to identify blind, is that I got one wine half-wrong, or in other words (since I passed), I got 2 right and one half-right. I said the lineup was a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, a Pinot Noir that I guessed was from Carneros, and a cool-climate Syrah for which I was going to guess a coastal region in California, possibly Sonoma Coast, but ended up backing down and saying it was cool-climate and Old World style. I figured an accurate description was most important, and that if I guessed wrong it would hurt me more. Was that true? What if one of the other wines had been more challenging? What if my parents had never met?

In any case, I'm glad to be W. Blake Gray, CWP. You may address me that way on all correspondence, but please do not use the abbreviation W., C.

In other notes, since this post is braggadocio, yours truly has been "shortlisted" twice for the Born Digital Wine Awards, a London-based contest that is trying to establish what might be the first real international wine journalism awards. Wine writing has never had respect from traditional journalism awards, mainly because it hasn't had respect from mainstream newspaper and magazine editors. This isn't the most important topic in the newspaper, I admit, but when I was a sportswriter I won a bunch of awards, and there's nothing inherently more important about covering a football game than reviewing a bunch of Syrahs.

Anyway, the Born site links to my shortlisted blog posts, but I'll duplicate here because I'm proud of both:

The 10 most overrated wines

Sustainable Wines and Whole Foods Market

The latter post is particularly gratifying to see shortlisted, because my CSWA investigation took me longer than any other story I've not gotten paid for. Don't know if I'll win anything, but I hope so because there's a cash prize. Journalistic satisfaction is nicer when one can pay the rent.

Of course, if this freelance writing thing doesn't work out, I know there will always be job openings in the wine industry for a Certified Wine Professional. In fact, I have a photo of me doing just such a job below; kind of a visual resume. Thanks for visiting.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Sulfites in organic wine: An update

Here's an update on what's happening with the petition to allow sulfites in USDA Organic Wine.

Brief background: Currently USDA certified organic wine is not allowed to contain more than 10 ppm (parts per million) of sulfites, even if those sulfites occur naturally. I wrote about the issue in this LA Times article, and about a petition making its way through the USDA process that would allow some limited amount of sulfites in organic wine.

Last week there were two days of brief hearings before the National Organic Standards Board. How brief? Speakers were given just 3 minutes to make their point, and no questions were asked.

Originally, Tuesday's hearing was scheduled to be the main one on the issue. But the NOSB postponed that indefinitely. The petitioners hope to get their hearing in November, but apparently that's not a sure thing.

However, the NOSB does have to allow public comment on issues before it. So the petitioners sent three of their members to the public-comment hearing to speak.

Though it's their petition, they didn't get to go first.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Celebrating the death of Bin Laden

Until President Obama said it, I didn't celebrate. I saw the graphic, "Osama Bin Laden Is Dead," but I chanted, "Please be true. Please be true."

The President's speech was mesmerizing. I think he could have cut a couple of minutes, but he used the time to praise people associated with the operation. His finish, with the Pledge of Allegiance, reached to the right, but got me to stand at attention with hand to heart. A great moment in American history.

Symbolically, I had to open American bubbly. I had some older Schramsberg wines, and as soon as I realized I had the 2001 J. Schram North Coast Brut Sparkling Wine, I knew it was perfect. The grapes, which came from vineyards in at least four counties, must have been harvested within three weeks of Sept. 11, 2001. Mostly they would have been harvested just beforehand, in a better time. A time when the Battle for Seattle was our biggest conflict. A time when travel was less onerous, and when we didn't realize people wanted to kill us because of the kind of movies Hollywood makes or other aspects of our culture. Imagine, people who wanted to kill us because of Jerry Springer or topless women in gangsta rap videos. Or for our political support of Israel. Or whatever. People we didn't know, people we never personally did anything against, wanted to kill us.

This guy, Osama Bin Laden, wanted to kill me. Planned to kill my fellow Americans. Abandoned his family, spent his fortune, to kill us and damage our way of life. And the horrible thing is, he succeeded. We can eliminate him, but we can never make air travel convenient or pleasant again. We can never eliminate the growing bureaucracy of search, the intrusions to our privacy. Hopefully we can bring our troops home soon, but we can never make up for the loss of lives of our servicemen who fought in two wars that we entered -- one mistakenly -- in response to his action. Al Qaeda wanted to ruin our lives, or more accurately, our lifestyle. And they won. Which is why tonight's celebration is bittersweet. I still cannot see a picture of the twin towers without wincing.

But I yelled and I danced and I played "Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead" from The Wizard of Oz soundtrack. (What, you don't own The Wizard of Oz soundtrack? In San Francisco you can be evicted for that.)

And I drained the whole bottle of 2001 J. Schram, which was drinking great. It's toasty, but also has bright lemon fruit, good acidity and balance. It tastes like victory -- is that napalm in the morning? It tastes like Navy Seals bursting into a chamber with Osama Bin Laden cowering in the corner, using a woman as a human shield. It tastes like a protracted 40-minute gunfight, with Bin Laden thinking his security forces had the planning and firepower to protect him. Bin Laden, hating the United States, feeling the heat of anger. Bin Laden, defiant, sure that the Americans would stand down.

The bullet ripping through his flesh. I don't care if it hurt. The main thing I want is for him to have been facing it, to have known, to have seen The Stars and Stripes on the stealth uniform of the man -- the country -- killing him.

It's an odd celebration. I've been watching CNN for two hours, and I'm watching people yell "Woo!" outside the White House and jump up and down. I admit doing a little bit of it myself, but it has felt forced. I wish this day had come 9 years ago. But maybe this will grow on me, tomorrow. I had given up. Not only would he die of natural causes, I thought, he would also die without us even knowing it had happened. He would just disappear forever, like Amelia Earhart. Fifty years from now people gone wrong would admire his hit and run style, his cowardice, his evil.

It's great that he's gone. I don't know how our grandparents felt when Hitler died, but that's the only parallel I can think of. Osama Bin Laden, the most evil man in the world, dead. And I open sparkling wine (and drain the bottle while watching CNN). It's not like passing a key test, or getting a new job, or any other event that demands bubbly. It's relief. It's pride. It's not as cheery as I pretend. But maybe that's what great celebrations are made of -- we cheer more straightforwardly than we feel.

So here's my cheer: Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead! The witch is dead, and the witch is dead. Ding dong, the wicked witch is dead!

God Bless America.