Monday, December 31, 2012

Robert Parker and Yelp redefine perfection

Robert Parker has given perfect 100-point scores to more than 50 wines this year.

At first, my mind was boggled by the score inflation. How can more than 50 wines be perfect? Doesn't this mean mere 95-point wines are now deficient? And that 92-pointers should only be used for salad dressing?

We had a lively discussion about this on Twitter. Is Parker's famous palate memory shot, at age 65, after decades of punishing his taste buds? Is he rewarding his friends? Validating his career-long quest to see the world make better wines? Or is it just his obvious enthusiasm, unbridled at last?

Last year, Antonio Galloni gave ZERO 100-point scores to Napa Valley for the Wine Advocate (he's doled out a hunnie since). So 53 perfect scores for Parker? It's a lot.

But then I spent a couple hours reading Yelp, and realized that once again, Parker is in touch with the American zeitgeist. "Perfect" is the new "good."

I'm going to quote 4 reviews below. See if you can guess which are from 100-point reviews by Robert Parker, The World's Most Important Critic, and which are from 5-star reviews from random people on Yelp. Answers after the jump.

1: "It's light, crisp, slightly sweet, a little embodies a delightful summer day in a cup.  It's a bit pricey, but much better than cheaper, subpar Moscatos."

2: "The wine has terrific minerality, laser-like focus, and a stacked-and-packed palate that builds incrementally like a 20-story skyscraper."

3: "I'm not an expert on Cognac, but anything this smooth, silky, potent, and aromatic, is truly great stuff. It is about as ethereal Cognac as anyone could ever hope to drink."

4: "Their Fiddletown Zin is like drinking blackberry jam. It's almost a dessert wine."

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Sparkling wine/Champagne buying advice: 8 simple tips

US sparkling wine can be very good, and good value
If you're like many wine drinkers, you might think you don't like Champagne. But you feel obligated to drink bubbly on Dec. 31. So you're going to swallow your distaste, buy something that's not too expensive, and pound it down like a poorly made cocktail (or, much better, in a well-made cocktail.)

Much of the time I write this blog for wine geeks. But not today. I have been bubbly shopping with friends who drink wine but don't obsess on it, and I've seen their eyes glaze over if I get too detailed. If that's you, here's a very simple guide to buying sparkling wine you'll actually enjoy.

Why do that? Well, why drink anything you don't like? If you're going to drink the stuff on Dec. 31 anyway, why end the year with a bad taste in your mouth?

Plus, you know all those movies and rap songs that mention how great bubbly is? Well, it really is, if you know what to buy. And you don't have to spend $300 for Cristal to live large.

So here are the 8 simple points to getting a sparkling wine you'll actually like.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Natalie MacLean tells a lie

I didn't want to revisit the Natalie MacLean content theft scandal. But she told a lie on her blog on Christmas Eve that needs to be corrected. And I can't correct it on her blog because she immediately deletes comments she doesn't like.

MacLean was using wine reviews from other writers without their permission and was not properly crediting them. Palate Press broke the story.

A week later, she wrote a whiny letter to readers about how people are so mean on the Internet, and she never meant any harm. And she doesn't make much money. AND more than 40 writers had emailed her in support. I'd like to see the names of those 40 writers who support the use of other writers' work without permission. Who knows, maybe they exist.

On the post, she soaked up the fawning approval of a dozen commenters, some of whom are probably real people. She deleted comments she disliked. It's her blog: that's not the way most of us operate, but it's her right, and I'd be lying if I said I've never done that.

The local Toronto papers aren't interested in the scandal. Her fans love her. Who cares what Palate Press thinks? She's got a little Ontario empire, and the bitchy Internet wine world will return to biting somebody else's tail soon enough.

But she just couldn't let it go. She had to take one step too many, and that step was this:

Friday, December 21, 2012

Mince pie recipe

I love eating in California, but there are things you can't get here, and one is good mince pie.

This British treat is found all over the East Coast of the US during the holiday season, but Californians have no tradition of eating it. When they do make it -- or write about it -- they don't understand it.

A good mince pie is unlike other pies in that it's mostly dried fruit; fresh apples give it crispness and body, but shouldn't dominate the filling. A good mince pie is spicy, slightly boozy, raisiny and chewy.

A century ago, mince pies were made of meat. But there's no reason to subject modern diners expecting dessert to a meat pie just to satisfy some food writer's historical urges. Mince pie has evolved, and we can only hope articles about it eventually evolve with it.

Marie Callender's made the best commercial mince pie here, but went through bankruptcy and its local stores closed. In 2011 I bought a $6 pie from Safeway and a $35 pie from Three Babes Bakeshop. The Safeway pie had a cheap industrial crust and a cornstarchy interior, yet was much closer to the concept. The $35 pie failed in the same way as most expensive mince pies I've had here: It was an apple pie with some dried fruit, tasty enough, but not the same thing.

I complained long enough that my wife found a recipe from a Japanese chef living in London, where they know what they're doing.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Does MS mean Master of Spitting? Plus wine the Romans drank, and the Champagne of kings

Jancis Robinson, MS (Master of Spitting) via Octopus Publishing
While I've been busy blogging about wine media, three good stories of mine about wine itself have run on other sites that you might enjoy reading.

* Have you ever wondered what it takes to spit at a high level? To have master sommeliers mention your expectorating skills with awe? I spoke to world class spitters Jancis Robinson and Charles Metcalfe and learned their secrets. Bonus fun fact: Do you know how much alcohol your body absorbs when you spit instead of swallow? Read the story.

* Natural wine zealots like to talk about drinking wine the way it was hundreds of years ago. That's great, if you don't mind a foul vinegary drink that people consumed solely for calories and its disinfecting qualities. Wine historian Paul Lukacs gives a refreshing perspective on the wine of today by telling us what the wines consumed by the Romans and Henry VIII really tasted like, and reminding of us what everyday wines were like just a generation ago. You might be forced to reconsider the virtues of that 5-liter jug of Livingston Cellars that your relatives are even now planning to serve at Christmas. Yeah, that's right, drink the jug wine and stop yer yammerin'.

The world's largest wine bottle
* Palate Press released three stories on Monday: two powerful pieces of journalism about Natalie MacLean that hopefully you already know about, and one lost-in-the-excitement feature by me. It's a good reader about a winery making creative Champagnes with nearly-extinct grapes in a 960-year-old cellar. There's still time to find their wine for New Year's Eve.

I may not post anything tomorrow because I hear there's a war on Christmas, and I want to get out of the line of fire. But before I go, here's what I want from YOU this holiday season:

Writing for the Internet is often worse than a thankless task. You put time and effort into serving up commentary for free, then people call you a moron as abusively as they can.

I don't want you to say nice things to me today because that's like saying "I love it!" after your spouse asks if you really like the reindeer sweater. It's forced.

What I want you to do, as a gift for me, is to go to the site of some other writer whose work you enjoy and tell them that. Something simple: "I really like your work. I enjoy reading it. Thanks."

People occasionally tell me that in person, and it makes my whole day (thanks again, Courtney, and thanks for the Cognac.) Please, spread that
Christmas holiday Hannukah KwanzaaChristmas cheer around.
Now if you'll excuse me, I've got something to say to Alan Sepinwall and Joe Posnanski.

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

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Natalie MacLean should pay

Natalie MacLean has committed the most egregious content theft in writing that I have ever heard of -- in fact, the second* most egregious content theft of any kind I've ever heard of. And MacLean, Canada's best-known wine critic, should pay.

Let me assure the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that I'm not being figurative. I am being 100% literal, though it is tempting to restate the headline in hiphop vernacular.

Plagiarism has become a looser concept. A couple years ago I wrote a widely read blog post and discovered some others liked it so much they took my name off of it and republished it as their own work. I'm still pissed off. But when I speak to Writing for the Internet students (something I do every semester), I am always interested that current undergrads -- accustomed to retweeting and reposting -- don't understand why a writer would think he owns an original thought, expression or work.

* (A pianist, Joyce Hatto, issued CDs recorded by other artists as her own. That's worse.)

What MacLean has done goes far beyond retweeting. She has taken without permission the copyrighted work of other writers, presented it without bylines -- which means almost all readers will think it is her own -- and charged readers a fee for it. That's not retweeting: that's theft.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Great barbecue in a Florida gas station: Pearl Country Store

Pearl Country Store barbecue chefs Leander Alford (left) and Richie Owens with coworker Alyssa Wallace (center)
Those who love barbecue don't dream of tablecloths or arugula. The dream of the ideal plate of barbecue is some place in the country where all that matters is the meat. Heavyset men spend all day tending slabs of ribs. Pork is smoked at low temperatures until it is almost the texture of marmalade. And there ain't no pretensions.

Soon as I heard of Pearl Country Store, a gas station/convenience store with well-regarded barbecue in Micanopy, Florida (population 653; median household income $28,000), I wanted to visit.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Wall Street Journal claims it was right on Parker, but corrects story anyway

I got an extraordinary email from the Wall Street Journal this morning regarding the story Lettie Teague broke about Robert Parker selling the Wine Advocate. I've never received an email like this from a news publication.

I'm going to just post the email below, as well as I can reproduce it. As far as I can tell, my headline sums up what the Journal is saying: We were right, yet now the story is different.

Newspapers correct stories all the time. But for a paper to reach out to another journalist and send an email like this, it's extraordinary. I've never heard of it. I'm flattered that I'm important enough to receive it; thanks. But why? Why not just correct it in the Journal? Afraid of a lawsuit, maybe? Want more publicity for the Journal (which I'm giving, right now)? It's such an extraordinary communication that I decided to publish two blog items in one day so I can get it out there right away. What the hell, the world didn't end yesterday, so it's a red-letter day.

If I knew the truth of the Parker story, and the Journal's revision, I would tell you. We may never know the whole story. But we do know now not to trust what we've already read, including this latest version.

How I almost sold out

I wrote a column this week for Wine Review Online that I had been wringing my hands over for three months.

I had an interview with a guy who really got under my skin. Longtime readers know that I'm a proud American. Don't let flag-waving Tea Party types tell you conservatives have a monopoly on patriotism. If you're not an American and you want to point out areas where the US is wrong, it's like some outsider pointing out my sister's flaws. When you're right, I'll acknowledge the point, but can we talk about something else now? And when you're not right, I can feel the anger building up in my spine.

Do you invite somebody to your home and then start insulting his sister? Not if you're a cultured French bon vivant and businessman. So I don't know why people think it's OK to insult a guest's country.

And you better be right. Yes, George Bush shouldn't have started the Iraq War. Stipulated. We have a lot of poor people we don't take care of. We don't care enough about other countries to learn their languages. Our inability to connect the dots between the number of guns we have and the number of murders we have is terrible. Stipulated.

But we do NOT mix Champagne and Coca-Cola on a regular basis. We don't. We may not have your sophisticated French palate, but we're not that wasteful.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

What Robert Parker selling means for wine

What will Robert Parker's sale of the Wine Advocate mean for wine?

Nobody on the planet has had a bigger influence on the style of so many wines. With Parker selling out and stepping down as editor, what happens now?

These are just guesses, but this is just a blog.

1) Ripe wines will get even more commonplace

Don't confuse Parker's palate with the advance of science. Major advances in viticulture have occurred in the last 25 years that make it possible for growers to fully ripen their grapes in areas where that wasn't assured before. At the same time, global warming is inexorably leading to riper wines in many parts of the world. Plus, ordinary people who don't know who Parker is have become accustomed to the taste of ripeness in wine. Most of them won't want anything else.

However, ripeness is not overripeness. Different issue. Herbaceous Cabernets are not coming back into vogue; black fruit flavors are the future. That's ripeness. But without the Wine Advocate to, er, advocate for them, the future for expensive, syrupy 15.5% alcohol Syrahs could be the BevMo nickel sale. 

2) The prices of the very highest-rated wines in the Advocate will soar beyond what we imagine now

Monday, December 10, 2012

"Wine Grapes": The wine geek's ideal reference book

José Vouillamoz looks over his work
My relationship with "Wine Grapes" has only begun.

No one, not even a winemaker with obsessive-compulsive disorder, will ever read this 1242-page hardback book cover to cover. And if they did, the book wouldn't be worth the $175 cover price.

It might be fun to try. Start with Abbuoto, a "rare, central Italian variety producing plenty of alcohol, generally blended."

On the same page there's Abouriou, a "declining, early-ripening southwest French variety making tannic red" that was once known in California as "early Burgundy."

Then you learn that Abrusco, an "obscure and endangered late-ripening Italian red adding colour to blends," is made in a 100% varietal version by only one winery. Le Tre Stelle is a Tuscan farm, winery and B&B owned by two sisters and their mother, and when 20 vines of nearly extinct Abrusco were found by chance, they decided it should be bottled on its own.

Don't you want to try that wine?

Can you keep going? Can you go through Acitana and Acolon and Adakarasi? How long before you flip ahead to get to a grape you used to think was obscure, like Colorino or Inzolia or Scuppernong?

Friday, December 7, 2012

Wine, movies and music on the 100-point scale

Earlier this week I wrote about a French wine film, "Tu seras mon fils," that I would give it 3 stars on a 5-star scale. How many points on the 100-point wine scale is that?

It's not an easy question, nor is it irrelevant this time of year. We're all choosing movies to see, buying Christmas presents we haven't heard, and buying wines we haven't tasted.

I'm a big fan of using Metacritic in building my wish list for Santa. Metacritic compiles text reviews from magazines and uses an algorithm to convert them to the 100-point scale. Because I'd rather listen to an 80-point Jack White album than a 90-pointer from Taylor Swift, I read the reviews, which of course you should do with wine, and the algorithm is reasonably good.

Metacritic rates albums from about 60 to 100. Movie critics rate movies from zero to 5 stars. But as we all know, the 100-point scale for wine is really only about 82 to 100.

Is there some factual basis for this?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

"Tu Seras Mon Fils": French wine film finally opens in English

Good wine movies are so rare, and here's one that comes with a free glass of wine.

"Tu seras mon fils" -- also known as "You Will Be My Son" -- opens this weekend in the UK and Ireland with a great promotion that we'll never see in the US: a free glass of Bordeaux. The film was shot at Clos Fourtet in Saint-Émilion, and in the UK you'll actually get a glass of the second-label, Closerie de Fourtet 2007. Very cool.

"Tu seras mon fils" is about a wealthy Bordeaux chateau owner who considers himself the height of sophistication, yet can't stand his own son. The title, translated as "You will be my son," telegraphs the relationship he wants to have with the son of his winemaker.

The film is very French: high acidity, no residual sugar. On the 5-star scale, I'd give it 3. But we're all wine lovers here; a 3-star wine movie is a must-see for us. Don't despair, US readers, the film is scheduled to be released here next year, though if you can't wait, you can order a DVD if you have a multi-region player.

California audiences will share a few special wry chuckles. The winemaker's son jets into the story from his job as head winemaker at Coppola, bearing a bottle of Rubicon.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

True "At the Table" stories from Rent-a-Sommie Peter Palmer

Peter Palmer
Me: "Sir, may I pour you a little more Champagne?"
Him: "No, I'll wait for the wine."

Before becoming Rent-a-Sommie, Peter Palmer was wine director at Farallon in San Francisco for 14 years. He likes Farallon and still fills in there, but he wanted to do something different, so now he does one-night stands all over San Francisco.

About three years ago Palmer began occasionally posting "At the Table" -- true sommelier stories and thoughts -- on Facebook. After reading the snippet above, I asked permission to run a bunch of his anecdotes on my blog. These are my favorites.

I ran the tray full of cocktails to table #67, and as I set them down one of the guys said: "Finally. Why did these take so long? Is it because we're black?" I was caught off guard and not sure what to say, because everyone at the table was Caucasian.

Overheard as I was opening a bottle of wine: "Mmm...Honey I love this Pinot! (Takes another sip) It's so good, it tastes like Cabernet! Delicious."

Me, after pouring him a taste of the 2nd bottle and sensing his hesitation: "Is it a flawed bottle?" Him: "You know, I think it's corked, but only like 4% or so. If I was at home it would be fine. At home I need like 20% corked before I can't drink it." Me, thinking: What?

I find it odd that when I ask people if the white wine is cold enough, the temperature to their liking, they invariably reach for the bottle to touch it. This moments after they just tasted the darned thing.

Woman, looking at the label of the wine her friend ordered as I poured her some: "Ooh...It's from Napa. It's must be good!"

Monday, December 3, 2012

Is cheap Argentinian Malbec about to disappear?

Winemaker Paul Hobbs and author Ian Mount
I have a story on Wine-Searcher about how the flow of cheap, quality Argentine Malbec to the US might be about to stop because of government interference, high inflation and a small harvest.

It would be a short-sighted shame if the Argentine government succeeds in derailing what may be the country's best-known export.

It's still a country dominated by agriculture. Wine was only the 21st largest export from Argentina in 2010 by value, but more than half of the larger dollar value exported products were agricultural. Wine is the apex of agriculture, and perhaps gives a halo effect to all of a country's farm goods. Not only that, wine has easily the most potential added value of any agricultural product.

Yet short-sighted government regulations are an Argentine tradition.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Ravenswood's Joel Peterson: What score would you give his ashes?

Thousands of ZAP attendees have their photo taken with Joel Peterson
Earlier this week Wine-searcher published a Q&A I did with Ravenswood Vice President of Winemaking Joel Peterson.

Joel's a brilliant guy, funny and always worth talking to. Dr. Vino already found something in this interview to blog about: Ravenswood once got two ratings from the same magazine for the same wine that were 5 points different.

This is probably my favorite section:

Where would you like to be buried?
I would like to have my ashes sprinkled at Bedrock, the vineyard that I own. Nothing could be finer than to be part of the wines some day. To appear molecularly in somebody's glass of wine.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Wines by the clone: Too geeky to drink?

See how much wine is left in these bottles. Yet I liked them all
Earlier this week I opened three $50 Pinot Noirs at once, to drink almost by myself. (My wife wanted half a glass).

The wines were three shades of delicious: all by Erath, all from the Prince Hill vineyard in Oregon's Dundee Hills region. I could have happily drank any one of them.

Instead, in the course of two nights I finished about 2/3 of the one I liked best, which happens to be one of my favorite Pinot Noirs of the last month. The one my wife preferred has about a glass and a half missing. And my 2nd choice, which I liked perfectly well, is missing less than a glass.

You often see articles comparing similar wines. The New York Times opens 20 Languedoc reds. The San Francisco Chronicle compares 45 Russian River Valley Chardonnays. Or a single wine blogger compares 3 Pinot Noirs.

But we never write about the aftermath.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Grgich Hills pushes the acid higher

Ivo Jeramaz
Early in harvest season, I promised a blog profile to the wineries that posted the three lowest pHs for harvested grapes. This is the first of those profiles.

Grgich Hills is a Napa Valley favorite of ordinary people, but not critics. In the last decade that has come to mean something unexpected: it's a winery that promotes balance.

Because it doesn't make blockbuster wines, Grgich Hills doesn't get high ratings from the Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator. But Ivo Jeramaz, who has taken over winemaking duties from his uncle Mike Grgich, says he has not trouble selling all the wines he makes, and not at low prices either.

I have long been a fan of Grgich Hills white wines. The Sauvignon Blanc is one of my favorites from Napa, with great texture and good complexity, yet plenty of freshness. At $30, it's the best value from the winery.

Grgich Hills Chardonnay ($42) is one of the best Chards in the Valley; always well-balanced, a good food wine in a regional category where they're rare. It's also one of my wife's favorite Napa Valley wines; she likes the restrained fruit and she likes Mike Grgich. Grgich's American dream-come-true story appeals to her.

I used to recommend Miljenko's Old Vines Zinfandel -- it's a nice wine -- but $114 is just too much for Zin.

Jeramaz got my attention by harvesting grapes for still wine at under 3 pH. You just don't hear of that in California. When I contacted Jeramaz, I offered him the choice of any story format he wanted. We could talk about Grgich's history, or taste the wines together and discuss them. We could talk about biodynamics. Or we could do something entirely different. Another low-pH winner, Adam Lee, chose to turn the tables and interview me (a decision I suspect he now regrets because he recorded about a 75-minute interview and now has to edit it.) So what did Jeramaz want?

Friday, November 23, 2012

Red Friday: Buy a Gray Report t-shirt

Here's the perfect Christmas gift for the blog lover on your list. A Gray Report t-shirt, with a unique design by digital media professor Dr. Stephanie Tripp. Guess where the QR code leads you!

Each custom-designed, Gildan Ultra 100% cotton t-shirt will be delivered directly to you, or your intended gift recipient. You may include a free gift message. Delivery takes about two weeks, so there's plenty of time for your friend to get the shirt -- and send you one in return.

The price is just $30 per shirt, less than it costs to taste Opus One. Shipping to the US and Canada is free! (International readers, contact me for shipping prices.)

Ordering is via Paypal, so all major credit cards accepted.

Sizes for the pictured shirt are unisex. You can order in adult S, M, L, XL, 2XL, 3XL or 4XL. (2XL and up $32). There are also youth sizes YXS to YXL. Get a set for the whole family!

Here's how to order: Pay here:


Then send me the size(s) you want and your mailing address. You may also include a free gift message.

Thanks for supporting The Gray Report!

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

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Wine from Jordan and Turkey

Winemaker Rob Davis (left) with John and Sally Jordan
Year after year, Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are two of the most popular wines in US restaurants. The Jordans are interesting people, and their winemaker, one of the longest-tenured in the world, strives for balance at a time when his neighbors are seduced by power.

And yet, few people write about Jordan. As I explain in my Wine Review Online column this month,

"Jordan sits near the top of consumer polls while the wine media, depending on its focus, extols something cheaper, weirder, more powerful, harder to get, newer, more traditional…you name it."
It's a good story, thanks in part to the unusual frankness of John Jordan. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Twinkies, eyeglasses and the zombie apocalypse

Where will I find new eyeglasses after the zombie apocalypse?

Hostess' bankruptcy put this terrifying thought in my head last week. I was trying to explain baby boomers' lamentations about the disappearance of Twinkies to my wife, who didn't grow up here. Bad baked goods made with totally artificial ingredients: what's the appeal?

I explained that in "Zombieland,"* Woody Harrelson wanted a Twinkie because it represented the society that was gone, and because they're filled with so many preservatives that they would last forever. Unless the survivors could find bread in a can in an unlooted country store, Twinkies would be their only taste of anything made from amber waves of grain.

Then my wife asked the question about the eyeglasses. It's a poser.

Life after the zombie apocalypse wouldn't go so well for me if I broke my glasses.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

European Wine Bloggers' Conference 2012: The review

The traditional method of transportation still in use at a vineyard in Diyarbakir
The most amazing thing about this year's European Wine Bloggers' Conference is that there wasn't a single time block without at least one interesting panel.

The highlights were panels on wines from the area. We learned we were tasting history reborn.

It's possible that some of the same grapes domesticated 8,000 years ago are still lingering in the feral vineyards of Kurd-dominated Eastern Turkey. Turkey is the world's sixth-largest grape grower, but most of those grapes are eaten or drunk as juice. Scientists are just scratching the surface of the genetic riches here, and we got to hear about some of the results.

Joel Butler explaining Turkey's terroir
It's a tough call for my favorite panel of the event. The tasting of Turkey's indigenous grapes with Joel Butler laid the foundation for everything we learned about the wines afterward. Patrick McGovern and José Vouillamoz taught me as much about the domestication and early history of wine in an hour as I probably knew previously.

We learned about raki, the anise-based spirit that dominates the Turkish alcohol market because it's not in the Koran. (It's also surprisingly good with food.)

And Tim Atkin and Charles Metcalfe led perhaps the best 7-wine tasting of the year, a look at fine wines from Georgia (amphora-based natural wines), Lebanon (elegance is the defining characteristic), Armenia and Turkey.

The whole conference had a seriousness that, I'm sorry to say, isn't really associated with blogger get-togethers in the US.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

One-stop shopping: Cocktails, wedding rings, ammo

Turner's Sports Bar, Boise ID
Trolls? Most recent Yelp review: "Keep your head down and don't make eye contact." 
Me, I shot this photo and got back in the car.

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

Monday, November 12, 2012

100-point scale and natural wine at the European Wine Bloggers' Conference

Forgive the brevity, I'm typing this from a hotel lobby in Elazig, Turkey, which has shaky wifi but hopefully another great Turkish breakfast: several kinds of olives and cheese, fresh salad, many kinds of bread, fresh and dried fruit including sour cherries and mulberries, and super-strong Turkish tea. I want to run a photo post of my breakfast, but that's like being a parody of a blogger, although I did meet a guy last week who set up a website that follows the everyday adventures of one pair of his jeans.

I had the great fortune to attend the European Wine Bloggers' Conference last weekend in Izmir, Turkey. I covered for Wine Searcher two seminars of continuing interest to wine freaks 'n geeks. Those stories are already posted; Wine Searcher is trying to become a fast-publishing daily wine news site. And they pay money, which is why my stories are there. Hopefully they get what they pay for.

The debate on blind tasting and the 100-point scale was lively as always; the story is here. The highlight: a new system for rating your friends.

The panel on natural wine was so one-sided that people who aren't really known as proponents of the ideology, including Vinography's Alder Yarrow and myself, stood up to try to present what a natural wine advocate might have said, had she been there. To find out what Alice Feiring would actually have said, I emailed her and put her response in the story.

I need a little more sleep and a few more glasses of Turkish wine to put my thoughts in perspective on the EWBC overall, but I will say this: it's a fun conference attended by serious people. Rémy Charest tweeted that from the EWBC, people tweet, "I disagree with your view on malolactic fermentation." From the American WBC people tweet, "Party in room 137. Woot!" Seated among three authors of recent scholarly books on wine at the grand banquet, I have to agree -- even though I wooted more than my share of Öküzgözü.

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

Friday, November 9, 2012

One week working at a winery: I fought the valve and the valve won

 Kent Benson
By Kent Benson

Have you ever wondered exactly how a destemmer works? Posing that question to a winemaker a couple years ago was the genesis of my quest to find out firsthand how all the winemaking processes I had read about for years really happen.

As a wine educator I field a lot of questions about wine and winemaking, most of which are as easy to handle as an infield blooper. But, when someone asked me how a destemmer removes grapes from the stems, it was more like a hot grounder ricocheting off the heel of my glove.

Then and there I decided to put down The Oxford Companion to Wine and pick up a barrel filling wand. I wanted to work in a winery. With a full-time job and bills to pay, I could only spare a week for my hands-on, vinous experience. So, the question was, what winemaker in their right mind would want a complete novice gumming up the works in their winery for a week during the busy harvest season?

With some helpful suggestions from W. Blake Gray, I sent emails to a dozen or so wineries in the Paso Robles area, asking if they might help me fulfill my quest. I even volunteered my services for free, making sure they understood they would get precisely what they paid for. (I ended up getting paid anyway!) I chose Paso Robles solely because a friend there could put me up and I’d save on lodging.

Only two wineries responded. Both invited me to come.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The two Americas of premium wine drinkers: the Prestige/Intrigue divide

People outside the US always want to know how to get their wine noticed in the US market. The key is to understand that there are two very different markets for premium wine drinkers*, not unlike the red state/blue state breakdown in US politics.

* I'm defining "premium wine" as anything $15 and above. Wineries able to compete in the $10 supermarket scrum don't need or want advice from bloggers.

Let's call it the Prestige/Intrigue divide.

Prestige drinkers want the best wines. Intrigue drinkers want the most interesting wines. There is some overlap -- Burgundy is an intersection -- but the core philosophy is very different.

Just as with the red state/blue state divide, most wine drinkers live in a one-sided media bubble. Prestige drinkers read Wine Spectator and the Wine Advocate, if they read wine publications at all. Most major wine bloggers are Intrigue drinkers.

The reason some wine debates (natural wine; wine ratings) are so shrill and repetitive is that they neatly divide the two sides.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Day wine poll: What will you drink most next year?

In honor of Election Day, let's vote. What wines do you expect to drink most in 2013?

You can make multiple selections and there is a space for write-ins. Unlike for President, the choices are not mutually exclusive, which is good because lots of people like Cabernet and Pinot. (Nobody likes Obama and Romney.)

This is both a popularity contest and some info for me on what you might want to see covered more.

Please vote in the real election today (see my California endorsements). If you have to kill time waiting in line, hopefully this poll works on your cellphone and you can warm up those decision-making neural pathways.

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

Monday, November 5, 2012

Is "Order something different" bad advice?

Which is better: To have a second glass of a drink you enjoy, or experiment and drink something you like less?

Last weekend a friend visited San Francisco from rural swing-state America.* We went to Bar Tartine, as famous for its beer list as its wine. I'm a wine guy, but fermented and spicy food (we had sauerkraut with hot chile paste as an app) is a great beer pairing. Doug is from my previous life as a sportswriter; he likes a cold one and amiably takes what's on offer. He took a recommendation from the server for a wet hopped ale, Ruhstaller Blue Heron Yard Hop Sac, and loved it. I had a glass of Massican Annia 2011, a Tocai Friulano-based blend from Napa Valley, and we were both happy.

*(California residents: my election endorsements are here.) 

When Doug's glass ran dry, the server came over and asked if he wanted another. "Sure," Doug said, "I'll have the same."

"Order something different," I said. So he did: a Ballast Point Sculpin IPA.

He doesn't know me as a wine geek. When we worked together, I may have had a reputation for knowing the one good country restaurant in every town with a high-school football team one might have to cover (when in Eustis, Florida, check out King's Taste barbecue). I wish that was the only reputation I had, but that's another story. (Calling the NFL a Communist-style enterprise in print stays with you.)

Friday, November 2, 2012

Vin de Tahiti: Man vs. nature

I confess, I was sitting here when I could have been interviewing the winemaker. Sorry.
In making wine in French Polynesia, Dominique Auroy is taking on a challenge as formidable as rafting across the Pacific Ocean.

The soil is salty. Sea water laps within a few meters of the vines, which are grown on a tiny island across a channel from Rangiroa, where scuba divers (like me) come to swim with dolphins, sharks and turtles.

The weather is unrelentingly hot. Storage is a problem because air conditioning is expensive. Every kind of supply -- even drinking water -- must be flown from Tahiti to the airport in Rangiroa, then brought over the channel by boat. 

To add an extra degree of difficulty, the vines have tropical pests that have never been seen in vineyards anywhere in the world. One particularly voracious beetle couldn't even be identified by experts at the University of Montpellier.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Three Halloween photos

Maybe my new blog photo. What do you think?

Dr. Blake Downs: An obvious costume choice for me. If you haven't seen the brilliantly sick show Childrens Hospital, here's one of my favorite episodes.

Below, I didn't get any great shots of the Giants' victory parade because I was just too far back. The first shot captures the fun, I hope. And the second is just a weird cultural collision: a mosque atop a check cashing place, which probably charges higher rates than Islamic law allows, with Giants fans at both levels. Baseball, the great unifier -- at least when the local team wins.

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

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

WAR and wine ratings

This is the year I stopped paying attention to statistical baseball analysts, aka sabermetricians. And it got me to thinking about how individual wine lovers decide that wine ratings are meaningless for them.

Long ago I realized Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator couldn't tell me if I would personally like a wine. Nothing against the idea of a 100-point rating; it's just a subjective measure from somebody with different tastes.

But advanced baseball stats were different. I was an early adopter of VORP and OPS+, and I figured that if the methods of calculation of FRAA were over my head, that was my fault, not the statisticians'.

A stat called xFIP first raised doubts for me. xFIP became my equivalent of an overripe, undrinkable 98-point wine -- it taught me to doubt.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Wine Spectator takes step toward younger audience

Talia Baiocchi, from
In danger of becoming increasingly irrelevant, Wine Spectator took a step toward attracting younger readers this week by hiring Talia Baiocchi to write blog posts and Katherine Cole to write features on a freelance basis.

(Update: Cole emailed me to clarify that she has no specified relationship with Spectator, unlike Baiocchi, who will be blogging regularly.)

It's an interesting move for the Spectator, which has maintained a nearly constant staff of critics for the last two decades even as the wine world has changed immensely. Philosophically, it's a huge shift, as Baiocchi -- also the national wine editor for the Eater website -- is young and represents the new Brooklyn aesthetic, whereas the Spectator has calcified over the years into a gated retirement community aesthetic. 

Let's not overstate its importance: Baiocchi will be writing blog posts, not replacing James Laube as California wine critic. That would be huge; this is tentative.

Monday, October 29, 2012

My latest (greatest?) hits

Sparkling wine tastes better when drunk in the street
First things first: Go Giants! If you're in northern California and you're not shaking off a hangover today, where were you?

Since I was busy watching baseball when I could have been blogging -- my priorities are in order -- it's a good Monday for a greatest hits post. Normally I like to post something here tipping off readers to some of the work I publish elsewhere. While I was gone, a few items ran that I think you'll enjoy.

Schloss Vollrads winemaker Rowald Hepp
Just before I left dive paradise for home, I got an email from Wine Review Online editor Michael Franz saying he'd lost my column, and did I have another copy? Oh no, Michael, that was a great one!

But turns out he looked behind the refrigerator or something and resurrected the story of how the world's oldest winery has rebounded from times so perilous 15 years ago that its owner shot himself in the head.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Endorsements for the Nov. 2012 election: San Francisco

One of this country's biggest problems is that we don't talk enough about politics, particularly local politics.

We only talk with people we agree with, and we only talk about the Presidential race. That's why we get dysfunctional government entities like San Francisco's Community College Board, which bickers about doctrine while risking bankruptcy and possibly losing the school's accreditation.

So here's who I'm voting for and why. I read all the endorsements and interviews in the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Bay Guardian and Los Angeles Times and the candidates' stated positions on The Guardian as usual did the most and best work, interviewing almost every candidate, but it's too dogmatically far left for my taste, so I have to parse its opinions carefully.

It's a tradition now at The Gray Report to do these endorsements because we need more discussion and analysis. The Chronicle has probably had 10,000 articles on the Presidential race, which you can read about anywhere, and zero on the local community college race. As you'll see if you read the whole thing, I'm a registered Democrat but an independent thinker. No matter where you stand politically, you'll find some position of mine to disagree with. Which is fine, that's why we should talk more about politics. No name-calling please. And don't obsess on the top of the ballot choice; there are 10,000 other places to talk about that.

Barack Obama
I'm not going to waste space trying to convince you; most people are set. I think Mitt Romney could be a good President; we don't know, because he has been evasive about his plans. What we do know is that he and Paul Ryan have run a campaign mocking the importance of facts, and if they win, no future Presidential candidate will feel the need to tell the truth or apologize for outright lies. Maybe we're there already in a world where 56% of Republicans believe Obama was born abroad.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

What writers really say about wines we don't like

Writers usually only publish reviews of wines we like. But we taste so many more wines, and have strong opinions even if you don't normally read them.

I was rooting around in some old notebooks yesterday and found these tasting notes from a session -- most likely multiple sessions -- with Jon Bonné during my time at the San Francisco Chronicle. I don't remember what all we tasted; I must have kept the actual notes in a different notebook. And I don't remember who said what. So with apologies/thanks to Jon, here's what I have written down:

This is what lemonade would taste like if it were made by Satan.

It's like a Dunkin Donuts strawberry cream donut in a puddle.

(Wine number) 10 smells like a rat trap -- 11 is the rat trap that worked.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Cougar Town turns wine into beer

Cougar Town claims to be a TV show "about friends and wine, but not in that order." I've never seen the show, but as a serious baseball fan*, I saw about 1,700 promos for it on TBS during the playoffs.

So here are some thoughts about what Cougar Town's promos say about America's wine culture.

* There's no food in these ads, and wine is chugged in a drinking game, gulped down in a speed test and drunk from the bottle with a straw. Yay! Wine! It's like beer, only red!

* Why is it red? Isn't buttery Chardonnay officially known as Cougar Juice?

Monday, October 22, 2012

I brought a Lodi wine to French Polynesia

The hardest decision in packing for my diving vacation was which wines to bring.

I wanted delicious wines, of course. But I also wanted wines that were symbolic and appropriate. I wasn't trying to bring wines just to save money: I wanted to make a statement.

Baggage on French Polynesia domestic flights is limited by weight, and we decided we had room for about 2 liters -- not coincidentally, the legal limit for one person.

French Polynesia is part of France, sort of. The official language is French; people eat baguettes. Most imported food products are French. Wine, with the exception of Vin de Tahiti, is almost exclusively French.

On my previous visit, some French divemasters expressed astonishment that anyone outside France could try to make a living writing about wine. "I heard that other countries make wine, but ..." one said.

I wanted to wave the vinous Stars and Stripes. But how?

Here were my conditions:

* White wine. It's hot in French Polynesia and we ate fish every day.
* Couldn't be too old, too expensive, or too irreplaceable as it could get cooked in transit or in our rooms if we had no refrigerator.
* Something representative of the USA that I couldn't get from a French winery. Instead of bringing Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, I should buy Burgundy or a Loire white on site.
* Something special.
* Something I could proudly explain, and offer a sample of, to any French hotelier who asked. A wine to make me proud.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Gray Report swims with the fishes

Photo courtesy Under Water Hangover
This blog is on hiatus until Oct. 22, as I'm taking a French-style 3-week vacation to French Polynesia. I could set up some wine and food posts to auto-publish, but a blog is a conversation, not a lecture.

I love scuba diving, but rarely go in California because the water is too cold here. French Polynesia has the best diving I've experienced, plus the food is reasonably good because they don't call it American Polynesia. Unlike in Micronesia, we didn't get Spam for breakfast OR dinner.

You go for the visibility and warm water and abundant fish life and colorful soft corals, but I had two of my most memorable dives there because of encounters with big critters.

Friday, September 28, 2012

California winemakers: Post your low red-wine pHs here

Hey California vintners, I just want to remind you to brag here about those great low pHs on the grapes you're bringing in.

This is just an update of the previous post announcing the concept. I don't want people to forget now that red grapes are coming in.

Stipulated: pH by itself does not mean the wine will be delicious, any more than brix does. If you feel the need to post this in the comments, suppress yourself. We get it.

I'd like to see vintners talk more about pH and not exclusively about brix, especially in a nice growing season like this one. Not only that, I want to show those East Coast Euro-snobs that they can't dismiss California wines as all the same. There's a movement towards balance out here but some won't believe it without numbers.

The prize for the lowest pHs recorded is a profile of you, your winery and your wine on The Gray Report. I'll wait 'til you're done with harvest and have a little free time. Some people might scoff at the value of such a prize, but I get dozens of emails from PR people every week begging for such coverage. So hey, PR people, prod those winemakers to enter. You too, Gallo and Constellation folks. You heard me. If you got it, flaunt it.

Currently I'll be profiling the Sauvignon Blanc from Grgich Hills and something from Adam Lee at Siduri, but there will be more.

By the way, if your comment is "held for approval," there's no need to resubmit. I'm going off the grid for a while but I'll see and post all your comments when I get back.

Happy harvesting!

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

Thursday, September 27, 2012

A funny story about a great Chardonnay

Robert Brittan
Here's one of the funniest back stories I've ever heard about a wine. But please, nobody show this to Robert Brittan's daughters.

Brittan left his job as winemaker at Stags' Leap Winery after 16 years to move to Oregon to make cool-climate wine. "One of the reasons I moved from Napa was to make Chardonnay," Brittan says. "But I wasn't going to make it under my own label until I had planted my own grapes and harvested them."

Brittan says, "I feel very strongly that the best New World Chardonnays are going to come out of Oregon in the next 10 years. It's because of the way the fruit evolves up here. It's not so abrupt as in Napa. When I made Far Niente Chardonnay back in 1981, I think they got too rich. Here, I've found that structure and richness that I wanted."

But in 2009, his Chardonnay vineyards weren't producing yet, and he needed some wine.

"My daughter wanted to get married in California at a winery," Brittan says. "They wanted me to buy Chardonnay for the wedding. There's no way in hell I'm going to drink somebody else's white wine. So I decided to make two barrels of Chardonnay."

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Book review: Eric Asimov's "How to Love Wine"

Eric Asimov
Robert Parker taught Americans, and eventually the world, a new way to think about, talk about, and drink wine.

Few wine critics since have been so ambitious. Most try to do what Parker does, only different.

Next month, New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov delivers a slim book with a goal as ambitious as Parker's.

"How to Love Wine" didn't win me over at first. Like a wine that Asimov would love, it starts off tight, acidic and brooding. When he writes that he doesn't believe California vintners prove anything by holding blind tastings of their wines against the best of France, I resist. How does a new region get on the map? Asimov doesn't much care about new regions or developments; he's besotted by wines with long histories.

I could easily take some points of Asimov's philosophy like that one and attack them, and I expect some people will. Though Asimov is not an aggressive writer,  the book can be discomforting because it challenges many of the norms of the way we think about wine today.

Asimov, who once edited the features section for the best newspaper in the world, has 260 pages to explain his philosophy of wine. I'm going to try to distill it into a long paragraph. (Deep breath.)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Ode to the end of the pretzel croissant

My very last pretzel croissant, the morning after
The pretzel croissant is a strange beast: the lithe, flaky body of a croissant encased in the lacquered, chewy exterior of a pretzel.

It's also one of the best breads I've ever had, and is yet another reason to miss Sonoma County's best restaurant, Cyrus, which is closing Oct. 28 because a new landlord wants a chef more interested in serving wines from the wineries the landlord owns.

Cyrus' Doug Keane, a Europhile drinker and a Japanophile chef, is always generous with his cooking instructions. He once brought a whole lobe of foie gras, before that became a criminal act in California, to a house dinner I attended in St. Helena and showed us how simple it is to fry it up. He also showed us how to make simple, delicious corn soup, shaving the kernels of fresh sweet corn off the cob and cooking with a little water, milk and salt.

But the pretzel croissant is well beyond the capacity of home chefs, even the obsessive ones I've worked with. It's an 8-hour process, including the use of lye on the pretzel dough. I told a Cyrus manager that I know some cooks who would spend the 8 hours, and she added that it requires a $15,000 piece of pretzel-making equipment specially ordered for this 2-1/2-inch morsel. So forgive me for not including a recipe.

I debated about whether to write about it at all. I decided by doing so I would preserve it forever on the Internet, in case Keane doesn't bring together the same baking team at wherever he cooks next.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Leading climatologist: "Napa will be a table grape region"

Dr. Gregory Jones
Napa Valley will be growing cheap table grapes by 2050 if global warming projections are accurate, says the world's leading expert on wine climatology.

Moreover, the previous two cool years have distracted people from noticing that Napa Valley's weather is now like what Lodi had 40 years ago, says Dr. Gregory Jones of Southern Oregon University. Meanwhile, Lodi now has weather like what Fresno had 40 years ago.

Jones consults with wineries around the world about climate, advising them on what grapes to plant considering what the climate may be like in the future. "You play for a 25-year sweet spot," Jones said over breakfast last week in Ashland, Oregon.

And the sweet spot for people planting right now in Napa Valley probably isn't Cabernet and definitely isn't Chardonnay.

"A climate that will be as warm as Napa will be in 2050 would be a table grape region today," Jones says. "Now can people adapt over that time? Maybe. But if climates warm to anywhere near what the projections are, it's a table grape region."

Thursday, September 20, 2012

US trade negotiators hate consumers

Did you know "chateau" has an actual meaning on a French wine label? Honestly I did not, until I learned this week that the EU is negotiating with the US to take that meaning away, not just in the land of Chateau St. Jean, but even in Europe.

Currently, a wine that says "chateau" on the label in France must be made from estate grapes. We Americans can't deal with those restrictions on our freedoms.

"Estate bottled" under US law means 100% of the grapes must come from grapes grown on land owned or controlled by the winery in the viticultural area, and the wine has to be made and bottled in the same area. Kind of like "chateau." Except "chateau" is in some foreign language, so it doesn't matter to US.

When we finish using our blunt market power to steamroll the meaning out of "chateau," I propose US trade negotiators toast with a glass of California Champagne, or perhaps Gallo Hearty Burgundy. Maybe they can light up a Havana Soul cigar (made in Miami) with a glass of Zinfandel Port.


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Words, numbers and wine: My week published elsewhere

Regular readers know that I write columns online for Palate Press and Wine Review Online. Palate Press runs me once a month; Wine Review Online, every four weeks.

This is the first time since I've been doing the Palate Press column that the two have aligned, and it will be the same next month too. The convergence is so pressurizing that I will escape beneath the Pacific Ocean, only resurfacing when the columns separate. (You probably think I'm kidding.)

My column for Palate Press this month is a call to wine lovers everywhere to change the way we refer to acidity. Language matters, and American consumers have said that "crisp and tangy with distinct acidity" is a negative. At 2.5 pH (which would totally kick ass in my online pH roundup), Coca-Cola is far more acidic than wine, but you don't see their advertising geniuses mentioning it: Coke is "the pause that refreshes" and sells by the bazillions. I have a similar suggestion, thanks to some bilingual French vintners. Read it here.

A portion of the ceiling at Contucci. Read the WRO story for the details.
For Wine Review Online, I visited one of the most interesting wine cellars I've ever seen, a 500-year-old winery directly beneath the town square in Montepulciano, Italy where the wine is made by candlelight. Wine just doesn't get any more Old World than that. Read the story here.

Finally, while I'm best known for writing for ordinary wine consumers -- if I'm not best known for the red spectacles -- I also write for trade publications. Usually I don't link to such articles here because they're not general-interest enough, but I think most readers will find my article about Portuguese wines for Beverage Media Journal interesting. What was a wakeup call for me was that, while wine media (including me) have been touting Portuguese table wines for a while now, the numbers suggest that most Americans haven't been paying as much attention as we'd hope, given the quality and price of the wines. Beverage Media Journal goes to wine buyers across the country; I love writing for it because it's a real chance to reach gatekeepers. Read the article here.

So you can see I'm more than just a pretty face in red spectacles! If you know any publication editors who need stories about wine, drop me/them a line. Will write for cash.

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