Saturday, December 31, 2011

My winery and wine of the year

Wine Review Online asks me, along with each of its other writers, to pick a winery and wine of the year each year.

It's never an easy choice, and this year I was stymied by the idea that the wineries and wines I most wanted to pick, I had already raved about. I am very impressed by the turnaround at Barone Ricasoli, but I already wrote that story for WRO. I tasted the best Chardonnay I've ever had this year, from Domaine Romanée Conti, but it costs more than $2000, and I wrote that story too. I didn't just want to write a greatest hits piece.

At the same time, there was a thought I haven't been able to get out of my head. I went to New Mexico this year and had, not just the amazing Gruet Blanc de Noirs that I sent my own non-oenophile family for New Year's Eve, but delicious still Pinot Noir. I didn't leave the airport in Texas this year, but I had McPherson Viognier each time through both Houston and Dallas and just adored it. I had a suite of delicious Michigan Rieslings that made me believe that state is soon going to challenge New York for the best Riesling in the US. These aren't just good regional wines, but great wines, period -- yet if you follow the major ratings magazines, you'd never know it.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

In bubbly's worst week, try Franciacorta

This is the worst week for sparkling wine, though most people think the opposite.

This is the week when casual drinkers walk into the grocery store, or the warehouse, looking for an obligatory bottle.

It's not what they want; it's what they feel they must. So they go cheap; wouldn't you? Why pay $20 for something that isn't what you feel like drinking anyway?

They buy cheap bubbly. If they're lucky it's inoffensive like Sprite. But it's not going to inspire them to want to drink bubbly again until they have to.

It's like the impact Beaujolais Nouveau had on Cru Beaujolais. Yet that's a better situation because the grapes are the same, and so are the producers. Not so sparkling wine: people making quality ones are working in different regions with different grapes than people making the ones most people will drink on Dec. 31.

Which brings me to Franciacorta. The region has the strictest regulations for any sparkling wine in the world -- longer bottle aging on the lees; smaller yields in the vineyard. It's the subject of my Palate Press column this month. I started this rant just wanting to write an intro and link to that, because it was published the day after Christmas and I think not many people saw it. But I just had to get the rest off my chest.

It sucks to be a bubbly lover this week. You answer all sorts of soul-sucking questions ("which is better?" between two $4.99 specials) and give unheeded advice and see people either rewarding the mass producers with their economies of scale, or splurging on marketing rather than craftsmanship.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Antonio Galloni's first reviews of Napa: 94 is the new 90

Napa Valley had been holding its breath for months, waiting to see if the steroid era of inflated ratings for muscle wines would end when Antonio Galloni took over as California critic for the Wine Advocate.

Galloni's first ratings came out last week. Those hoping for a change in philosophy got a few crumbs, notably ratings over 90 points for Cathy Corison. But much more is the same under Galloni than not.

Grade inflation: Some might focus on the fact that Galloni, unlike Parker, gave no 100s and no pure 99s, although five wines are scored "(97-99)" and three are scored "98+." (In addition to creating its own standards of quality, the Advocate continues to insist on its own math.)

But high grades are clearly still part of the Advocate's marketing strategy.

Galloni reviewed 1061 wines. I used the Advocate's search engine to determine that 815 of them -- 77% -- scored 90 points or higher; 699 wines scored 91 or better. And people mock wine competitions for giving "gentlemen's bronze" awards.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Cock cheese for Christmas

It's been a little serious on this blog lately, so let's lighten the mood. I found this display of canned cheese in Mexico on the Yucatan peninsula, near the Belize border. Why they have canned Dutch cheese there, I don't know. But you gotta like that brand name. "Honey, would you pass the Cock cheese?"

Merry Christmas folks. I'll be back next week to talk about Italian bubbly, Gallo Chardonnay and other topics. I hope Santa brings you something tasty.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Wine Advocate in Sonoma County: No scandal, so far

An important role of journalism is to publish facts and let the general public decide on their importance. Thus, under the watchful eyes of the Wine Advocate's large law firm, I'm going to put the following conversation on the public record.

I pursued a purported scandal. A Sonoma County reader told me that he was being asked to pay the Sonoma County Vintners Association to have his wine tasted by the Wine Advocate, and it reminded me of the ongoing Spain/Jay Miller situation. But it appears to be entirely different.

At worst, the Wine Advocate might not taste wines from new Sonoma County wineries this year, instead preferring to let Antonio Galloni give his own evaluation of wines Robert Parker rated in the past. Galloni says even that is not true; I'm going to run his email below.

The deal is this: The Sonoma County Vintners Association is helping to arrange tastings for Galloni in his first official Wine Advocate visit. The same as Pedro Campo in Spain, the SCVA appears to be trying to throw its weight around, and may be overstating its influence on Galloni.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Gift buying ideas for wine lovers

We're all wine lovers here. I've written the "wine gift guide" story for mainstream newspapers, and that requires a lot more explanation. But you and me, let's cut to the chase.

Here are some gift ideas for different types of people.

Gifts for casual/Two-Buck Chuck drinkers
Don't try to blow them away with their first great bottle of Burgundy. They might not open it, and if they do, they're not likely to like it, unless you're there to explain why savory flavors are a good thing.

I like to give bubbly for Christmas to people at all levels of wine appreciation, but especially to novices. I want to give gifts people will open and use, and next week everybody's going to open bubbly. If you don't help them out with something tasty, they're going to buy the cheapest sparkling plonk and reinforce their idea that bubbly is something that gives you a headache but you're forced to drink it on formal occasions.

Don't spend too much, or they'll save it for their 10th anniversary. I like to spend under $20 AND tell them that's what I spent. A few wines I like in this price range: Gruet Blanc de Noirs, Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs, Schramsberg Mirabelle Brut, Scharffenberger Brut, Roederer Brut.

Gifts for everyday wine drinkers whose taste you don't share (or approve of)

Your aunt likes sweet, buttery Chardonnay, or super-ripe Cab. Or your niece likes underripe "weird wines." And you don't. What to do?

Friday, December 16, 2011

W. Blake Gray now blogging for Crushpad

I've got a new gig (part-time) blogging on occasion for Crushpad, the Sonoma County business that allows anyone to make your own wine.

My first post, about when you should decant wine, is up already, and I have written three more that will presumably run in the next few weeks.

It's an interesting gig because I'm being paid a minimum for each post plus a small amount for every page view, which gives me an incentive to send my blog readers and Twitter followers over there.

However, maybe I just don't believe my good fortune, but I have doubts that this new paying job is going to last very long, and not only because I just wrote the middle part of this sentence.

If you go to Crushpad's front page, you can't see any indication that exciting new things are happening on the blog. There's just a tiny link in the lower left among a bunch of other links.

I don't know much about Crushpad's business model; I know something, because I've written about the company, but I don't have any idea what strategies will lead to its long-term success. But I do know something about the online publishing industry, and there's no way that an unpromoted site will attract a following.

Of course, the idea is that I, being paid by the click, will promote the new enhanced Crushpad blog, and as I am writing this post right here, it's successful on its face. Still, I can't write an item on my blog announcing every blog item I write there. In fact, this post ABOUT my blog post might end up being longer than the original post.

From here on, I'll probably tweet "Hey, I wrote this thing on Crushpad's blog, go read it, I get a few pennies!" I have tried to give Crushpad good quality writing, because I want the blog to succeed. I like being paid.

So I'll say it again: Please go read my post. Not only might you learn something about decanting; I'll get a few pennies. And tell your friends, "Hey, W. Blake Gray is now blogging for Crushpad, it's the greatest thing since unsliced bread."

Or, if you want to help a struggling freelancer and cut out the middle man, drop me a few bucks in the Virtual Tip Jar I put on my blog. Don't forget to tip your blogger! On the Crushpad blog, service is included.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

New Zealand Riesling rocks, if you like minerality

My column this month for Wine Review Online is a little counter-programming to what you'll read about wine everywhere else in December. Most folks are writing about heavy reds, Port and of course, Champagne. So for me, it's the perfect time to write about New Zealand Riesling.

This was a strange column for me, because so often I try to delve into issues, or introduce personalities. Here, I started with the simplest of premises: I just really like New Zealand Riesling. I think it's underappreciated, and one thing I particularly love is its minerality. But I didn't get to go to New Zealand (sigh), so I did more or less the classic newspaper-column style: I tasted a bunch of wines I liked, interviewed a couple of winemakers, and wrote it up. It's funny: that's what wine writers did for years, but for me it felt unusual.

The reviews and ratings at Wine Review Online are hidden behind a pay wall, but I wanted to tantalize you with the tasting note of my favorite Riesling from my tasting adventures. There are cheaper Rieslings and easier ones to find, but what the heck, it's the holidays: why not treat yourself?

Envoy Marlborough Riesling 2007 ($36)
Produced by Spy Valley; Imported by Broadbent Selections, San Francisco
Point score: 95
Envoy is Spy Valley's single-vineyard portfolio, sold in a long, stylish bottle that won't fit well in your wine refrigerator, which is a shame because I'd love to see how this tastes in a decade. The nose has lime fruit with lots of minerality. It's medium-sweet on the palate -- apricot, white peach and clementine -- with plenty of acidity, and a mouthfeel like plum jam on the roof of the mouth with a current of minerality beneath. It just kept getting better one, two and three days after being open, but I couldn't restrain myself so I can't tell you about potential improvements after that. 9.5% alcohol.

Read the Wine Review Online column here.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Hungarian wines: Not just for dessert anymore

When the Soviet Union divided up production responsibilities for the Eastern Bloc, Belarus was put in charge of making tractors, while Soviet planners told Hungary: "You make wine."

Naturally the Communists botched the details of making good wine for the same reason that extreme capitalists do: They concentrated on volume and easy farming. But that doesn't mean their initial decision was wrong. Hungary is one of the best places in Central Europe to make wine.

However, the country is only beginning to create new winemaking traditions, because the old ones were just about forgotten during more than four decades of Communist rule. The wine world was very different in 1939, the last time before the '90s that individuals could easily make wine for sale in Hungary. For example, crisp, fresh whites as we know them today didn't really exist in an era when electric refrigeration wasn't universal.

A lot of money has poured into Hungary in the last 10 years because wine lovers realize that Tokaj Aszu is -- with apologies to Sauternes -- the world's best dessert wine.

What most of us are less familiar with are Hungary's dry wines.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Rombauer Chardonnay makes surprise TV appearance on "Chuck"

Zachary Levi as "Chuck"
Rombauer Chardonnay, swigged out of the bottle, apparently boosts computer hackers' proficiency. That's what we learned from watching the NBC show "Chuck" last week.

It looked like a product placement -- the label was prominently displayed, and the brand was named in the script. But I called Rombauer on Monday and it turns out they were as surprised to see star Zachary Levi drinking their product from the bottle as I was.

"I missed that episode, but a whole bunch of people called to tell me about it," said John Egan from Rombauer's sales and marketing department. "It's flattering as all get-out, but we did not know ahead of time that they were going to do it."

A little background on "Chuck": It's a spy action-comedy that was nearly canceled after two seasons because of poor ratings that have never improved, but it was saved by an Internet campaign spearheaded by my favorite TV critic, Alan Sepinwall. One of the things fans accepted about later seasons of the show is that it has more open product placements than usual, mostly for its main sponsor, Subway. The original Internet campaign to save "Chuck" focused on fans eating at Subway; subsquently, every other episode, one of the characters eats a Subway sandwich and comments on its deliciousness.

I am one of the small group of "Chuck" fans, thanks to Sepinwall, and was well aware of its product placement history, so it was shocking to learn that the show's producers hadn't managed to get more money from the winery to help produce the episode (which had a guest appearance by Danny Pudi from another low-rated critical favorite, "Community.").

Monday, December 12, 2011

Spike Your Juice lets you make wine from any juice in 48 hours

If I ever spend any significant time in prison, I'm going to ask someone to mail me a few packets of Spike Your Juice.

This fascinating product allows you to turn almost any kind of juice into wine in just 48 hours. It's really simple: It's nothing more than a small 1g packet of yeast and sugar; smaller than a sugar packet you'd add to coffee. That, and a rubber stopper and airlock is all you need to make wine out of basically any juice you can imagine.

It's based on a seasonal German product called Federweisser, the freshly pressed, still-fermenting grape must, only available during harvest. Federweisser is the opposite of shelf-stable, as it changes every hour and cannot be transported for long distances. I've tried it in Germany, and I like the concept more than I liked Federweisser itself. That's also true of Spike Your Juice. This is fizzy fun for the DIY crowd.  

Here's what you do: Bring the juice to room temperature and open it (a 64-ounce container is recommended; no artificial sweeteners). Pour in the packet. Close the top with the rubber stopper and airlock, which allows CO2 to escape; this is important, because otherwise your juice bottle might explode. Then, wait two days.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Final ruling: "Organic wine" cannot have added sulfites

The small community that makes USDA-labeled "organic wine" won a crucial, final victory last week to protect its market share.

The National Organic Standards Board voted 9-5 to continue to prohibit sulfites from being added to "organic wine." This came after the NOSB handling committee, which better understood the issue, voted 5-0 in October to support the inclusion of sulfites in organic wine.

Among the losing side, there was talk of at least one key voter being motivated by conflict of interest. It may be true, but it has also been my experience that simple ignorance of the wine industry will turn most lovers of organic foods into anti-sulfite people. And besides, the petitioners needed 10 votes -- a 2/3 majority -- to win, so it wasn't close.

One committee member, Jay Feldman, heads an organization called Beyond Pesticides that received a contribution of at least $4,000 from Frey Vineyards, which makes USDA organic wine. Feldman was by far the most vocal opponent of the petition to allow sulfites, interrogating the handling committee head, John Foster of Earthbound Farm, who supported it. At one point Feldman was admonished by National Organic Program head Miles McAvoy for "misrepresenting" the Organic Foods Production Act.

Now, that might be politically shady, as Frey Vineyards is celebrating the loudest today. The winery doesn't make particularly good wine -- I tasted through its lineup earlier this year and found most of the wines unpalatable, to be kind -- but it has a captive market of people who buy organics. And I'm the suspicious type.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Questions for Robert Parker as Wine Advocate scandal continues

For the past two days, representatives of the Wine Advocate have been trying to convince the media that Jay Miller's departure has nothing to do with the pay-for-play scandal still emerging in Spain.

OK, I'm convinced. Jay Miller quit on his own, months before the scandal broke. Stipulated.

But ... why is the Wine Advocate working so hard to establish that? Because what it means is that the questions raised from the scandal about the Wine Advocate's involvement are still unanswered.

I understand why Miller wants to tell us he leaped without being pushed. I've been there. It's important.

But for the Wine Advocate, it's different. When Jim Budd broke the scandal, publisher Robert Parker's immediate response was nothing. No comment. No action. I called for him to respond, and a couple days later he did, on his bulletin board, by threatening to sue "these bloggers." Still, no public response.

The very next day, Miller's departure is announced, again on Parker's bulletin board. Both Parker and Miller say it was long-planned. Miller writes,

"Some may believe my stepping down is in response to my critics. Nothing could be further from the truth."
David Schildknecht, who will be replacing Miller on most of his ex-turf, took pains to send an email string to Mike Steinberger proving that Miller's departure was long-planned. I believe Schildknecht.

Here's the problem:

Now the scandal doesn't go away.

Miller's leaving is not a response to the email string on Jim Budd's blog, which seems to show that an official representative of Miller and/or the Wine Advocate was charging for critics to visit a region, and even collecting VAT for such visits. How official is that?

The non-wine media is starting to pick up on it. The Wine Advocate runs a big risk of forever being associated with corruption in the public mind.

So Mr. Parker, now we still need answers to the following basic questions, and we need them publicly.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Jay Miller leaves the Wine Advocate

I've been laid off from jobs I loved, most recently after a few glorious months as food editor at SF Weekly. When that happened, I know a few restaurateurs, a reader or three, and a bunch of non-readers did a little jig or opened a bottle of sparkling wine. And I've taken a buyout from a wine writer/editor position at a major publication, the San Francisco Chronicle. As with any position like that, some people were happy then too.

Of course I don't know exactly how Jay Miller feels today, after leaving a position as one of the three most influential critics in the wine world. Miller leaves the Wine Advocate within a week of Jim Budd's blog posts (here's the one that broke it; here's a key one following up) detailing arrangements made for Miller to visit Spanish wineries for a large fee.

But I can guess how it feels, from how I felt each time I left a job I loved. Dazed. Vulnerable, and aware of it. Trying carefully to make all the small and bureaucratic but crucial decisions about dental plans et al. Should I travel? I shouldn't make any big decisions. I should bounce back quickly.

I'm worthless. I mattered yesterday. Today I do not matter. That's the worst thing. There, I have been. It is not pleasant. It is an opportunity to exercise the kind of emotional strength I aspire to and admire. And another such opportunity, tomorrow.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Robert Parker's response: He's preparing to sue

NEW INFORMATION: Apparently Jay Miller will no longer review wine for the Wine Advocate.

It's a red letter day for wines of balance in Spain and Washington!

(Hence this blog post is now a little outdated, but I'll leave it up anyway.)

Looks like wine journalist Jim Budd -- and maybe me as well? -- might need a legal defense fund.

Yesterday I asked Robert Parker to respond publicly to reports that Jay Miller's visits to wineries are for sale.

And Parker did respond, on his bulletin board, visible to subscribers only. It's not exactly the public response I asked for, but it's chilling in its effect nonetheless.

Since Parker spoke about suing "these bloggers" in his statement, I consulted attorney David Honig before publishing this post.

Sigh. What has the wine world come to, when we're all lawyering up?

Anyway, my original plan was to post what Parker wrote on his bulletin board here, on this website. But Honig -- who doubles as the publisher of Palate Press -- advised me that my risk isn't defamation, but copyright violation. Parker's belligerent message wasn't publicly published; it was for subscribers only.

Since Parker's lawyering up, I'm going to tread carefully around fair use of his response. Budd, without the benefit of legal advice, has quoted more extensively from Parker's response on his blog; you can read that (and go support him) here.

Parker says he investigated allegations from a blogger -- almost certainly Budd, though he never names him -- and found no substance to them.

Parker says he has asked attorneys in Europe and the US to examine every allegation and has hired an additional attorney in Madrid. And he mentions potential lawsuits by Jay Miller, Pancho Campo and the Wine Advocate against "these bloggers."

These bloggers? Did the temperature on the Internet just go down?

I'll ask again for the world's pre-eminent wine critic to respond PUBLICLY to the allegations.

Mr. Parker: if you investigated these allegations against Jay Miller and found them without merit, then tell us so. Your silence does not speak well of you in the court of public opinion. I'm no lawyer, but I can't see how telling us that the Wine Advocate is completely on the up-and-up is later going to hurt you in court (assuming, as I am, that you are ethically clean.)

You are an attorney; you understand the phrase "chilling effect." If you and the Wine Advocate did nothing wrong, then why are you trying to stifle bloggers?

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.

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.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.

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!

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.

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.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.

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.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Dog advertises winery

I was in Middleburg, Virginia recently in the heart of Loudoun County, probably the best wine-tourism area in the mid-Atlantic region (more about the wines soon). I had just had lunch at the ancient Red Fox Inn -- built in 1728, the peanut soup is still a keeper -- when I passed this dog on the street advertising a tasting room.

The dog seemed to enjoy the work; it paraded up and down the sidewalk carrying the sign. It got my attention: I shot about a dozen photos. But it didn't actually draw me into the tasting room, so maybe it wasn't that effective.

However, when you consider this employee was probably paid in dried liver treats, and requires no health insurance, you can see the potential. No wonder the wines are only 13 cents per taste; minimal labor costs! Now if they can just teach Sparky to pick grapes -- or do punch-downs. Don't tell Peta.

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Friday, October 28, 2011

Wine geek (me) captured on video

This week I started writing a monthly column for Palate Press, a publication I like a lot and previously served on the editorial board of. If you haven't read it before, here's my usual description: it's for real wine aficionados, aka wine geeks.

Like me. Sometimes I seem kind of mainstream for Palate Press, because I write stuff defending the 100-point scale. So Palate Press readers might be wondering if I belong. Here's proof that I do.

This video isn't the highest quality. My friend Dean took it with his iPhone in a low-lit dining room at Bern's Steak House while I parsed the wine list, completely ignoring him. My friend Doug Cook, better known as the creator of the wine-only search engine Able Grape, sits unseen across from me, doing pretty much the same thing, although he's obsessing over the Italian section while I yak about Inglenook wines from the 1960s.

My wife thinks the video is hilarious so I decided to share it. I look pretty intense; she must put up with this sort of thing every time I get ahold of a wine list. I have no regrets. Well, maybe one -- that we didn't actually get the Inglenook, nor did Dean buy me a bottle of Yellow Tail from Albertson's. Next time.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Wine & Spirits Magazine Excludes Bordeaux from its Top 100

Josh Greene enjoying the rooftop Wine & Spirits Top 100 tasting in San Francisco
Wine & Spirits magazine has quietly drawn an interesting line in the sand: It has no Bordeaux wineries in its Top 100 wineries in the world.

"Bordeaux gets plenty of attention in other places," says Wine & Spirits editor Josh Greene.

True, but it's a bold stance. For most drinkers over the age of 35, Bordeaux was considered the pinnacle of wine when we started.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Barone Ricasoli "Chiantifies" a Merlot

Estate vineyards at Barone Ricasoli
My most recent column for Wine Review Online is about the turnaround at Barone Ricasoli, one of Italy's best wineries for centuries that had fallen on hard times under absentee ownership in the 1990s. The baron bought his winery back and revitalized it. I'm not going to retell the story here; read it at Wine Review Online.

But I do want to share a tasting note. Wine Review Online puts its tasting notes behind a pay wall, a strategy that newspapers are coming around to. I want to show you what's there with this single tasting note about my favorite wine from the portfolio -- and one of the most interesting wines I've had this year.

Baron Francesco Ricasoli
Barone Ricasoli Toscana IGT Casalferro 2008 ($62)
Importer: Dreyfus, Ashby and Co.
Point Score: 94
One of the more interesting wines on the market, this is a single-vineyard, 100% Merlot that doesn't list the grape variety anywhere on the bottle. Baron Francesco Ricasoli says, "We are not selling varietal wines. We are selling terroir wines. If people buy this because they want Merlot, they will be disappointed."
That's most likely true: the aromas of cherry with some herbaceousness might fit on Bordeaux's Right Bank, but the mouthfeel is unique: the fine acidity of Chianti with the gentle tannins of Merlot. The flavors are mostly of cherry, with some cherry tobacco notes, and that acidity allows you to drink it with foods you would never imagine opening Merlot with. "This is Merlot, but it's speaking the language of Brolio," Ricasoli says. It's a positive example of internationalization providing not a generic wine that could come from anywhere, but a great new type of wine that we hadn't previously imagined.

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Monday, October 24, 2011

Organic wine gets one step closer to allowing sulfites

Organic grape growers seeking a better chance to make the additional money their efforts deserve got one step closer last week. A petition to allow USDA Organic wine to include sulfites cleared the second -- and perhaps most significant -- of four procedural hurdles.

"We think this step was pretty crucial," said Steven Hoffman, managing director of Compass Natural in Boulder, Col. "But the next meeting will be crucial too, and the small group of no-sulfites-added constituents are going to be very vocal."

Your comments (due by Nov. 13) might help tip the balance. I'll tell you below how to participate.

A quick background on the issue, which I wrote about earlier this year for the Los Angeles Times. Currently "organic wine" cannot contain any added sulfites, though sulfites are a crucial element in winemaking. This has kept organic wine marginalized at a time when organic grocery sales continue to grow, and it has allowed all types of green claims -- some legitimate, some specious -- to proliferate to fill the need.

Wines with sulfites added -- organic or not -- must say this on the label; the petition would not change that. What the petition would do would shake "organic wine" from its association with poorly made no-sulfite wines that often spoiled before they reached the consumer. And that might mean that organic wine -- which currently costs less, on average, than similar non-organic wine despite the extra effort and expense in making it -- might finally earn a premium, which could encourage more growers to get certified.

I think it's a fair argument that adding sulfites is adulteration that is not allowed in other organic products. However, wine has different demands than other organic products, mainly because of a more complicated distribution system. You can't just put your wine on a truck, drive it to a farmers' market and sell it; you would be arrested. Wine sits in warehouses for months and sometimes isn't drunk for years after its bottling; organic apple juice doesn't have this problem.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

6 Ways Wine Writing Differs from Food Writing

Some of you noticed I hadn't posted very often lately. The reason was that I spent the summer doing a day job as food editor at SF Weekly: a job I was recently laid off from, as part of Village Voice Media's nationwide cuts.

I've written about food here and there for more than 20 years, but this was the first time I had a full-time job immersed in the world of food -- not wine and spirits.

One thing I didn't expect was how small the wine world looks, from the position of the food world. The greatest thing about food writing is that it's such a huge playground, with so many more subjects to consider.

I would take a break on weekends to look at what my favorite wine writers were up to, and look: another article on high alcohol! Another screed about how California wines are too ripe! Don't get me wrong, I love writing about wine, and since I do it for money, I even wrote a 100-point-scale essay for Palate Press on the side this summer.

I cranked that out in about 25 minutes because let's face it, is there anything new to say on the topic? Yet we got 65 comments, which means my colleague W.R. Tish and I aren't the only wine lovers who like saying the same things over and over.

That's only one of a few differences between food writing and wine writing. From my fresh perspective, and since I've got some unexpected free time just now, I thought I'd list a few others:

* Winemakers are much better interviews than chefs
All winemakers have college degrees; most have advanced degrees. Some chefs go to culinary school rather than college, and while they may make creative, expressive dishes, usually they're not great at talking about them.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Adam Lee rebuts my post on California's "bad" 2011 vintage

Today I welcome guest poster Adam Lee, owner/winemaker of Siduri and Novy, 
with a rebuttal to my post yesterday. 
Adam Lee in Pisoni Vineyard in warmer, happier days
Yesterday, I fired off a rather abrupt (re: pissed off) email to Blake after his column on the 2011 growing season. Blake graciously asked me to polish my email into a column. Thank you for this opportunity, Blake.

First off, here is my perspective on the 2011 vintage in California. 

There are going to be some excellent wines made in 2011, largely those picked before the rains that started on Oct. 3. 

There are some good wines made that were picked just before or just after the Oct. 3 rains. These grapes were in a window of ripeness, but not truly fully ripe. In many cases, these grapes were picked because the grapes were ripe enough but botrytis was already an issue in the vineyards, and they wouldn’t deal well with the rain.

After the unexpected rain of Oct. 10 (which primarily hit the North Bay counties of Napa and Sonoma), many grapes started to deteriorate rapidly and rot became a major issue. In many cases, picking decisions became more a case of triage than of harvesting great grapes. Vineyards in the Central Coast, not hit by this second rain, often continued (and still continue) to ripen in good shape.

So, there you go, a vintage of mixed quality, ranging from great to poor. I have spoken to many friends who make wine, from those who make lower-alcohol, leaner styles of California wine to those who make a bigger, riper style and they are largely of the same opinion. Of course, there are exceptions, and some of those came to light in the comments to Blake’s column yesterday.

So, why did Blake’s column piss me off so much?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Hurray for California's "bad" 2011 vintage!

This is the worst way to decide if grapes are ripe enough
What makes a great vintage in California? According to Wine Spectator and the Wine Advocate, it's a hot, dry summer where the grapes get really ripe.

For the last fortnight hard rains hit northern California, and people who hadn't yet picked their grapes -- which included most makers of red wine -- are now dealing with water-bloated berries and botrytis. They're praying for hot dry weather so they can get their grapes ripe and concentrated. So they can make those 16% alcohol Cabernet Sauvignons we all know and love.

Many, perhaps most, will fail. They face unpleasant choices: Harvest and make a less-concentrated wine, or leave the grapes unharvested. The latter could be financially ruinous, so perhaps most will do the former.

That could be the best thing to happen to California wine in years.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Why nobody writes bad things about wine

On Saturday I deleted a lengthy interview with tasting notes that I wrote up months before, in which I said most of the wines were, for me, undrinkable. After seeing that the cult status for this winery is rising, I tweeted about it and a few other writers wanted me to reveal the winery.

I won't. My reasons have partly to do with the winemaker, but mostly to do with my relationship with the wine industry, which is why you rarely see anything negative written by a professional about any wine.

This is a dark side of today's wine media. I sell stories about wine; that makes me a professional wine writer, whether or not I make enough money to pay the rent. If I had a full-time job that I believed would never be taken away, I could theoretically write more honestly about bad wines. But when I did have the closest thing to such a gig, as a newspaper wine critic, our company policy was to only write about wines we liked.

How many critics anywhere today write negative reviews? James Laube of Wine Spectator drops the occasional sub-80 rating; there's a man confident in his position. Jancis Robinson, who runs her own company, famously called an expensive Bordeaux "a ridiculous wine," though she seemed to do so mostly to disagree with Robert Parker.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A great $9 Pinot Noir: Casillero del Diablo 2010

Concha y Toro Casillero del Diablo Reserve Casablanca Valley Pinot Noir 2010 ($9) 
Critic's rating: 90

There's probably no harder thing to find in the wine world than a good, cheap Pinot Noir.

The grape doesn't lend itself to budget viticulture. It wants to be picked by hand and gently crushed, not shaken off its vine by a machine and roughly tossed around in a giant tank.

Mainly, though, Pinot Noir wants to grow in a cool area, with plenty of fog. In California that's a problem because cool spots are on the coast, where the real estate is most expensive.

Chile's Casablanca Valley solves this problem, at least for the moment, before the world recognizes what the Chileans have there. The region has a deserved reputation in Europe as the source of consistently good, cheap Sauvignon Blanc. But the Pinot Noir isn't well known, though wines like this could change that. So the land is still cheap, which means the grapes and wines are cheap too.

This is not a boutique wine: it's a big brand. Look at that price. I'd like to spin the fiction of terroir, of some curmudgeonly seventh-generation grower sleeping among the vines in summer, in touch with their inner souls, coaxing out all their complexity. (Hmm, maybe I should get a job writing some wine marketing.)

But it would be fiction. For this price, we know how the wine was made. And yet, the grapes must be really high quality, because this wine is superb.

The French have a word they use in English: "nervosity." Like all terms that don't translate well, I'm not sure exactly what they mean, but I believe it's in this wine. This wine has great freshness: in fact, it reminds me more of young cru Beaujolais, in a good way, because young Pinots are so rarely this fresh. The bright cherry fruit is initially almost Life Saver-like, and there's not a lot of complexity. In fact, if you opened this wine in a big tasting with a bunch of more expensive Pinots -- as I did -- you might miss it. I first thought, clean and fresh, good value for the price.

Then I had dinner, with my six favorite Pinots from the tasting. The other five all cost at least three times as much. One cost 11 times as much. And this was the bottle I emptied. I admired the profundity of the other wines, but I kept reaching to refill my glass of this wine. So I admit, I adjusted my rating upward from my initial impression, and James Laube would disapprove.

But it's a genuine Pinot: light-bodied (13.8% alcohol), fresh, real. It's not going to inspire you to soliloquies. But I'll bet it's the best $9 wine in every store that carries it.
Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray