Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Dear Robert Parker: You MUST address the latest Jay Miller scandal

Pancho Campo (l) with Jay Miller. Courtesy, via Jim's Loire blog
Wine blogger Jim Budd has scored a journalistic coup: Proof that Wine Advocate critic Jay Miller's visits to wineries are for sale.

Budd's post details an offer made on Miller's behalf to make a short visit to "3 or 4" wineries in the Madrid D.O. for "half his usual rate" -- 20,000 Euros (US $27,000), plus VAT, meaning it's not an under-the-table transaction at all; it's official Wine Advocate business. (As usual?)

If not paid, Miller apparently would not visit the region or review the wines, according to the email sequence on Jim's Loire blog.

Parker has been embarrassed by ethical issues with Jay Miller before, regarding him accepting free travel and meals. But most of the wine journalism community looked at our shoes while business writers covered that story, because most of us (me included) accept free travel and meals.

However, charging wineries more than $6,000 each to visit for a few minutes and taste their wines -- and then later issuing a rating to consumers that you claim is unbiased -- seems to go way beyond any ethical boundary you want to draw.

Robert Parker, as owner and publisher of the Wine Advocate, must address this immediately. Otherwise, we in the wine community must assume that he condones this practice and perhaps receives a percentage of the profits.

And maybe he does. Here is a link to the 2498 words Parker writes on "Our Wine Critic Ethics and Standards" on his website. I just read through it and I don't see anything addressing the sale of visits to wineries. So that's OK for the Wine Advocate?

There is this:

I expect the writers to learn about the regions they cover from first-hand observation, but I demand they have access to all wines, not just one particular sub-segment category or region. Moreover, I require full disclosure of such hospitality they receive in the articles that emanate from these trips.
With respect to historic wine regions, The Wine Advocate and will continue to cover all of the independent writers’ reasonable travel expenses related to their reviews.
But I don't see anything in there about selling the visits. And the hedge here seems to be "historic;" maybe the Wine Advocate pays for Antonio Galloni to go to Burgundy, but for less-established regions, you pay the Wine Advocate. I wonder how much a 98 point rating for a Colorado Cabernet would cost? Just asking ... although if there's a "usual rate" for winery visits, you do have to wonder about a "usual rate" for, well, I said it already.

Consumers should be told that visits by Parker's staff critics are for sale. But let's take a step back first and see how Parker responds.

Dear Mr. Parker: Are your publication's ratings for sale? Your credibility demands a rapid, public response.

NEW INFORMATION: Parker did respond. He threatened to sue "these bloggers." Here's the subsequent post. 

NEWER INFORMATION: Apparently Jay Miller will no longer write for the Wine Advocate.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Yao Ming sells China bulk wine for $289 a bottle

I don't know if Chinese wine buyers are suckers, but Yao Ming sure thinks they are. The retired NBA player is selling a brand of wine named after him -- for 1775 yuan (US $289) a bottle!

There's nothing inherently ridiculous about a $300 bottle of wine from Napa Valley. Colgin, Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate, Hundred Acre and others I'm probably not thinking of sell wines in that price range already.

But there's a big difference between those wines and Yao Ming's: the others come from specific vineyards. Yao Ming's comes from grapes bought off the bulk market, the same as Smoking Loon or Ravenswood or anything else you might see in the supermarket for $10. And Ravenswood's bulk-grape buyers have been at it longer than Yao Ming, so the next time you buy a bottle of Ravenswood Vintners Blend, tell your friends, "This could sell for $289 in China!"

To be fair, Yao Ming probably paid more per ton for the grapes, though we don't know that. Wine Spectator Online, in a fawning story, reports: "The winery currently sources grapes from several Napa Valley vineyards, including Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard, Tourmaline Vineyard and Broken Rock Vineyard." None of those are considered Grand Cru material, and we don't even know if they are the only vineyards sourced from. It's Napa Cabernet, it's $289, that's all you need to know.

And you know what? It's not even the Yao Family Reserve! That's due out later this year; who knows what he'll charge his countrymen for that one.

As a California resident, I guess I'm happy about this: we're repackaging our lesser-quality agricultural products at high prices. Hurray for Yao Ming!

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Monday, November 28, 2011

Italian wine from New Zealand: Mount Nelson Sauvignon Blanc

Italians are some of the best cultural influencers on the wine world. French abroad tend to either shoot for greatness or discover the true meaning of the local terroir, and both are admirable. But Italians abroad, in my experience, tend to try to make wines that go with dinner.

I discovered the latest example of this by accident. I had a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc that was superb: delicious, food-friendly, without the "look at me, I'm a cough drop!" herbaceousness that some Marlborough wineries take over the top these days. It was a Sauvignon Blanc I couldn't have placed if I hadn't known the region, for it had the minerality of Bordeaux and the fruit of the best of California.

Turns out it's a product of the Antinoris, one of Italy's leading wine families. Marchese Antinori and his brother Piero bought the estate vineyard in 2003. The vineyard is just 18 meters above sea level, near the mouth of Cloudy Bay, which is pretty famous for its Sauvignon Blanc. The soil includes deep, stony river deposits, and maybe that accounts for the strong minerality of the wine.

Sometimes a wine blogger just has to blog about a wine he likes. Happy Monday.

Mount Nelson Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2010 ($19)
Imported by Wilson Daniels
Point score: 93
This wine engages the appetite with its intense aroma of lime pith and passion fruit, and then delivers a thirst-quenching rivulet that opens with passion fruit and finishes with chalk and lime pith. There's plenty of fruit, but the more you drink this wine, the more the minerality lingers on the palate; it stays interesting until the bottle is empty. 13% alcohol.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

My day in court for a DUI trial

How many margaritas did I have in Cancun? Many.
Yes folks, I, professional drinker W. Blake Gray, was in court yesterday for a DUI trial.

Fortunately it wasn't mine.

I was serving on jury duty, but once again I didn't get picked. I didn't get sent home quite as quickly as my first ever appearance, when I was a reporter in a small central Florida town. The judge, Ernest "Buddy" Aulls, who knew me from when I put him on the front page of papers around the country*, spotted me in the jury pool and said "Blake, go home."

* Judge Aulls was offended by repeated visits to court by a guy, named Love, who kept beating up the woman he lived with, who would call the cops and then take him back. They weren't married, and the guy was on probation, so Aulls ordered him to either marry her or move out. I sent the story to AP and readers everywhere saw the headline "Judge to Love: Get Married Or Get Out."

Although I didn't make it into the jury box yesterday, I was interested in questions the attorneys asked about drinking -- and some of the jurors' answers.

Of 24 potential jurors, six said they don't drink at all. This is less than the national estimate of 1/3 of American adults who never drink, but it's San Francisco, and 25% seemed high.

Their reasons?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Gallo beats its neighbors and consumers, again

I can't wait for the Russian River Valley versions of these fine Gallo wines
In Sonoma County, E. & J. Gallo Winery is like a rich, heavily armed neighbor who likes to store old cars on blocks in the front yard. Gallo -- which makes Thunderbird, a longtime favorite of derelicts -- devalues everyone's property, and there's nothing anyone can do about it.

Gallo won another legal victory over fellow Sonoma County grapegrowers and consumers last week, expanding the Russian River Valley appellation away from the Russian River itself -- but conveniently toward its 350-acre vineyard.

I was one of many people who made a public comment for the TTB, the federal bureau in charge of the appellation process, opposing the move. I don't have a monetary stake in the issue; I'm just a wine lover, and specifically a Russian River Valley wine lover.

But the TTB deferred to Gallo and made a formerly great Sonoma County appellation less meaningful.

It isn't the first time.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Virginia: Next frontier for buying vineyards?

Doug Fabbioli in his vineyard
My column in Wine Review Online this week is about a guy trying to make Virginia's first world-class, $100 wine. Here's a little extra about another guy trying to make a living.

Doug Fabbioli worked for Buena Vista Winery in Carneros for 10 years and had reached assistant winemaker when the winemaker said, "You're ready to be the winemaker, but I'm not going to give up my job."

So he looked for land in the area, but this was the late 1990s, and northern California vineyards were already crazy expensive. Instead, he took a job in 1997 as winemaker at Tarara Winery in Loudoun County, Virginia.

In 2000, he bought his own 25-acre vineyard and began building the winery and tasting room that he now lives above. "I couldn't do that in California," Fabbioli said. "I wanted to be in the next area. Virginia was brand-new and I really got to land in a new pond."

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Sorry Sydney, most people don't care about food-wine pairing

I'll make them drink Cabernet with their spicy Indian food
I felt like Snidely Whiplash on Monday: an international villain. I woke up in Brazil to discover I was being mocked in Boston for saying Japanese sake is better than American (sorry, it is). More significantly, I am now the poster child in Sydney, Australia for the idea that food and wine pairing is unimportant.

I wish a big paper like the Sydney Morning Herald had taken the trouble to spell my name correctly, but copy editors are always the first to go in layoffs. I don't want to insult the great city of Sydney by "correcting" its unusual first vowel, nor do I want to retaliate by adding a "u" to morning, one of my favorite times of day. So I'll just call the paper The Harold and move on to the real issue:

Does food and wine pairing matter to anyone other than food writers?

The answer, unfortunately, is usually not. And arrogant food writers are part of the reason why.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Leeuwin Estate Art Series: the best Chardonnay outside Burgundy?

Last week I wanted a really good Chardonnay. I rooted through my white Burgundies, bottles from  Sonoma County vintners I like, and one great one from Chile, but when my hand touched this, it was all over.

It seems like Americans never talk about Australian wine anymore, except with words like "crisis" or "drought." Looking at wine lists, it feels like the top end Aussie wines have dropped off most people's radar.

So here's a little reminder that Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay from Margaret River very well might be the single best Chardonnay outside of Burgundy. Other Chards have great years, but this wine is great every vintage. It's frequently in Wine Spectator's Top 100 Wines of the Year, but don't let that mislead you -- while often full-bodied and always full-flavored, it's a real wine-lover's wine.

It's not cheap, at $70 retail, but when you price that against single-vineyard wines from Montrachet, et al, it's not really that expensive either.

Specifically, the wine I had last night was this:

Leeuwin Estate Art Series Margaret River Chardonnay 2007 ($70)
Noble treatment in the cellar doesn't contain this wine's feral nature. It starts off wild, mushroomy if you like, but really it's funkier than that, and it rolls for a while, smoothing out as it goes, but never getting meek. It's more of an oatmeal, fermented buckwheat pancake, wheat toast, wild mushroom soup experience than fruit, but there is some golden apple in there too. It's a truly great wine that wins your attention sip after sip. I liked it best in a globe-shaped glass that let the aromas run free. Point score: 97

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Friday, November 11, 2011

Drink 100-year-old Champagne with Mario Batali

I don't often write about auctions, but Christie's has a lot next week that's worth a mention not only for the quality of the wine, but for the star power and weirdness.

Lot No. 128 offers the winner not only 6 bottles of Moet & Chandon Grand Vintage 1911 -- you also get dinner prepared and hosted by Mario Batali in the private wine cellar of his NY restaurant Del Posto. Gwyneth Paltrow is "currently scheduled" to attend the dinner as well. Maybe you get to decide whether you'd rather share the bubbly with her, or kick her to the curb. The estimated value of this drinks and dinner package is $30,000.

And here's the weird part: the dinner coincides with a spring gala being hosted by Salman Rushdie and Michael Stipe. I wish I had the right pun for that pairing, but I'll have to go with "and Michael Stipe thought people wanted to kill him for ending R.E.M."

The proceeds are for a charity called The Lunch Box Fund, which aims to give a daily meal to poor students in South African township high schools. That's also kinda weird, right? Drinking 100-year-old Champagne in a cellar, elbowing celebrities out of your way to get more bubbly, so that some kid can have a bowl of maize porridge.

But given the rampant skepticism about the provenance of old wines in auctions, this lot seems safer than most. It's pretty hard to counterfeit either old Champagne or Mario Batali.

You can access Christie's e-catalog for the auction here, but the software is really maddening. If you can afford to win this lot, you can afford to hire someone to get the catalog to work.

If you just want to bid in advance on this lot, here's a link. The auction commences Nov. 19. Good luck. And if you do win the bubbly, keep me in mind for, say, licking the cork.

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

The best food on planet Earth

Shot at Ocean Pride, Baltimore, Maryland. Tip: Ask if they're heavy today.

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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Photo quiz: What kind of wine is this?

I took this photo of fermenting wine recently when visiting a winery. But what kind of wine is it?

The first person to guess right in the comments wins an official Gray Report No Prize.*

* (no apologies to Stan Lee, the bastard killed Gwen Stacy)

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Monday, November 7, 2011

Yucatan lime soup: simple, comforting

Lime soup from Labná restaurant in Cancun
On a trip last week to Cancun I had plenty of great cochinita pibil -- pork marinated in bitter orange and slow-roasted -- but I expected that. The dish that made the biggest impression on me was simple, comforting and yet also stimulating: Lime soup.

It helps that the Yucatan peninsula grows great high-acidity limes that the locals squeeze on everything they eat. But I think you can make this soup at home fairly simply with local limes, although I might sub in some lemon to give it a little more acidity.

It's a really basic idea: lime juice and chicken broth, along with shredded chicken. Some places serve it with fried tortilla chips and queso fresco on top, but these aren't necessary. However, I did like the accoutrements at Labná restaurant: cilantro, diced onions, chopped jalapeños and chopped habaneros, which I admit I'm too wimpy for. I also added some fresh-ground black pepper.

Searching for a good recipe, I found this interesting one from the New York Times that greatly complicates the soup, adding cinnamon and cloves. It's intriguing enough to pass on, but I  liked the simplicity of Labná's version, so the NYT one might just be too much work.

So I prefer this recipe from Bon Appétit, which is really simple, to the point of using canned chicken broth. With prep and everything, you can probably make it in 30 minutes, unusual for soup. UPDATE: We made this last night and because American limes aren't as strong as Mexican -- and because I really like lime -- I would increase the amount of lime in this recipe by about 50%.

This is a great soup for Riesling lovers, who will relate to the fruitiness and acidity. However, if you want to know what I had to drink with it in Cancun, well, the answer is obvious:

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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

San Francisco's Top 7 Dim Sum Restaurants

During my gig as food editor at SF Weekly, I set out to review every dim sum restaurant in the city. I'm a big fan of dim sum so this was a labor of dumpling love.

When the job ended, I got an unexpected side benefit: I no longer have to worry about giving every lesser dim sum place a chance. I feared I wouldn't be able to return to my favorites for more than a year; now I can go back every weekend.

Here's where I'll be going back to.

Durian pastry
7. Lee Hou
I'll go back here purely for the dessert. The durian pastry ($2.50) is perhaps the best dim sum dessert I've ever had: pungent, fresh, flaky like it was made in France; a great use of this feral-tasting fruit.

Other Lee Hou advantages: It's very cheap and easy to get into. Chicken with sticky rice in lotus leaf ($3) is a highlight. Get the pork feet with preserved bean curd ($3.50) early; the rich, porky sauce makes a tempting dip for other items.

6. Yank Sing I don't go here very often because it costs about twice as much as the next-most expensive restaurant on this list. But I have to acknowledge its quality, as well as its ornate service, with some meats sliced at your table. I like the snow pea shrimp dumplings. If you have to ask what they cost, eat anywhere else on this list. Seriously.

Green tea balls
5. House of Banquet
A funny place with a giant cabbage god in the huge, empty downstairs room. Go upstairs and get the siu mai and the baked pork buns, and don't miss the green tea balls for dessert.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Why newspaper food writing is bad

Bruce Schoenfeld recently tweeted "Why is local food writing so much worse than local sports writing?" I promised him an answer, so here it is.

I'm one of the most qualified people in America to answer this question, as I've worked on the staff of major newspapers first in sports, then in food.

Note from my headline that my answer is simple. It's not that sportswriting is good: newspaper food writing is bad.

I can count on one hand the decent newspaper food sections in America, and I've written for two of them (San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times). The New York Times is good. After that? Anyone want to make a case for their local food section?

Here are the four main reasons local newspaper food writing is bad:

1) Gender

Most publishers are men. Until recently, food sections were the exclusive provinces of women. This has far-reaching impact on the way food sections are run and what resources they have. Most publishers and executive editors don't relate to the food section in the same way they do to business, sports and features, and gender is a major reason.

Note that the three good food sections I've listed all have male executive editors. Is Michael Bauer better at running the Chronicle food section because he's a man? No -- but he is very good at convincing higher-ups to give him resources. A woman could do that job, but male higher-ups simply relate differently to male department heads.