Wednesday, February 29, 2012

How Obama wants to change wine law: A tiny detail

The Wine Institute was geared up for a major fight with President Obama before the proposed federal budget was released, because some in the administration advocated eliminating the TTB, the agency that governs alcohol.

When the budget came out, no such major change was included. There was a tiny change proposed, allowing IRS investigators to work on excise tax violations of alcohol law.

The Wine Institute was ready anyway with a letter (at left) signed by seven US Senators opposing the change. I'm not a tax expert, so I decided to look into it and find out why.

Two weeks later, I finally have the answer. I'm going to quote the email I got exactly, which I may only credit to "an administration official on background:" (but really, it's Michelle ... kidding)

"The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) in Treasury currently collects alcohol excise taxes, but they do not have the manpower to initiate enforcement investigations. Last year, both the House and Senate included funding for TTB to hire agents to enforce the collection of these taxes.  Rather than have TTB start a new agent cadre, the Budget proposes to allow existing IRS agents to enforce this provision on the behalf of TTB.  This is not a new tax, just the enforcement of an existing one, and the Budget tries to enforce compliance in the more efficient way."

That makes sense to me and I don't really understand why the Wine Institute and seven US Senators oppose it.

Nor will I. The Wine Institute refused to answer my questions about it, saying only (again "on background," not from a quotable source) that "we don't think the proposal has a chance of being approved." Cocky.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

High West "36th Vote" barrel-aged Manhattan

Barrel-aged cocktails are one of the most interesting developments in the nation's bar scene. I wrote about them this month for the trade publication Beverage Media Journal. Mostly, these are drinks you have to go out for, although there's no reason you couldn't make them yourself at home using the instructions for bartenders in the article. You'd just have a heck of a lot of drinking to do.

You can sample the concept by trying High West's barrel-aged Manhattan, made from the company's own rye whiskey, Angostura bitters and sweet vermouth.

The idea of aging a cocktail is to meld the flavors, and it works very well in the "The 36th Vote." The most noticeable characteristic of this drink is the smooth mouthfeel. It's very lightly sweet on the palate, with the vermouth flavor at the fore. The rye, normally a fairly strong taste component, is detectable mainly after the finish, along with a hint of pepperiness. It starts sweet and finishes dry.

People often drink Manhattans as an aperitif, and this would work well, but I have found I like it after dinner, perhaps because digestion makes me lazy. Sure, I could probably round up the ingredients and shake up a fresh Manhattan. Or I can just pour a little of this over ice. It's more complex than sipping whiskey, yet at 37% alcohol, it's almost as potent.

At $57 suggested retail price ($45 at the store I found below), this bottle is not cheap. But consider what the cost of a call-brand Manhattan is, especially with rye from High West, Utah's finest distillery ("the 36th vote" refers to the vote Utah, of all states, cast to end Prohibition.) You'll get about 15 single cocktails from the bottle. In my dreams, an airline would carry this stuff. But then, in my dreams, I can fly. Especially after three of these.

You can order a bottle here.

Read the Beverage Media Journal article here.

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Friday, February 24, 2012

Colman Andrews Q&A: Unpaid writers, Italian food and more

Colman Andrews, 67, could be among the old curmudgeon class of food writers.

He could have gone off to pasture with his 6 James Beard Awards for food writing when Gourmet magazine folded in 2009, ending his stint as restaurant critic.

Instead, Andrews is now editorial director of, a website that is as modern as food media gets -- and I don't mean that as praise.

Like the Huffington Post, the Daily Meal doesn't pay writers, which means it runs a grab bag of mostly crap, often with hidden agendas. I clicked on a wine "story" to discover it was posted by a retailer looking to sell its wares.

It's an interesting change for an interesting man, who co-founded Saveur magazine, is considered an authority on Catalan cuisine, and has written eloquently for just about every publication that runs thoughtful articles about food.

Andrews is coming to Oakland on Sunday to promote his new book, "The Country Cooking of Italy." This is a big deal as cookbooks go because his last book, "The Country Cooking of Ireland," took the James Beard Award in 2010 for Cookbook of the Year.

Andrews will host a dinner at Camino restaurant: four courses with wine for $85. Seats are still available.

I spoke with Andrews by phone on Wednesday about food media, Yelp, and whether he would eat at Sonic or McDonald's if he had no other choice (he brought it up)

WBG: What's the goal of the The Daily Meal?

Andrews: The ambition is to be the clearinghouse for anything you'd want to know about restaurants, wine and spirits, beer, or anything related to those areas. We publish a lot of original material but we also publish a lot of links to other places.

WBG: Do you pay writers?

Andrews: No, in general we don't. The majority of our contributors have their own blogs or websites. We're a high traffic site, with 2 million monthly unique visitors.

WBG: You built your career by being paid to write about food. Don't you feel guilty?

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The wine lover's guide to the Republican primary

In 1928, alcohol policy was a huge issue in the Presidential campaign. The Democratic candidate, New York governor Al Smith, believed in ending Prohibition. The Republican, Herbert Hoover, ran on a socially conservative agenda that gained him the support of the Anti-Saloon League.

Hoover won and became one of the most unpopular Presidents in US history. Franklin Roosevelt beat him in 1932, then quickly moved to end Prohibition and celebrated by drinking one of the first legal beers in the White House.

Alcohol policy is not a big issue in 2012, but it might as well be, given the low state of discourse between the Republican candidates. Rather than decide which of the remaining quartet is the most severe conservative, I thought I'd take a look at what their election might mean for wine lovers. I spent some time researching their backgrounds on alcohol policy and the results surprised me.

Longtime readers know I'm a Democrat, so you can take this post with as much salt as you like. I doubt that anyone is going to vote for any of these guys based on how they feel about wine. But in the case of at least one of these candidates, if you're a wine lover, you should.

Rick Santorum

Like Al Smith, Rick Santorum is a Catholic. When it comes to alcohol policy, that means a lot.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Mondavi family comes together at the Vintners Hall of Fame

Maybe this is uncouth, but as I watched the Vintners Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Monday, I was thinking about a fistfight.

While this year's class of inductees has seven members, only three are still living, and just two took the stage. John Parducci is still around, but at age 94 he wasn't feeling hale enough to trek to St. Helena.

Richard Sanford, at 70 the youngster of the group, gave a thoughtful speech; it was interesting to learn that the rejection he felt as a veteran returning from Vietnam led him to want to work the land. 

But the emotional highlight was 97-year-old Peter Mondavi Sr.'s induction.

Each inductee had someone to introduce him, and someone to accept the award. The luminary who volunteered to introduce Peter was Margrit Mondavi, widow of Peter's brother Robert.

Brothers fight at any age, but Peter and Robert's feud was particularly bitter, with the fistfight in the '60s that led to Robert being ousted from the family business, and a devastating lawsuit in the '70s that made it difficult for Charles Krug to carry on.

Before the end of Robert's life, he and his brother reconciled, to the delight of all in Napa Valley; they even made one last wine together. And on a night when any number of close family members -- such as his son and heir, Peter Mondavi Jr. -- could have introduced Peter Sr., there was Margrit, speaking of the long separation.

Monday, February 20, 2012

US leaves wine out of organic deal with EU

The US and EU concluded a major deal on organic food labeling last week, basically agreeing to recognize each other's certification processes. In other words, if canned peaches are certified organic in Spain, they may be labeled as "organic" in the US.

The only product left out of the agreement was wine, and once again sulfites were the culprit.

The EU allows sulfites in "organic wine." The US does not.

Wines labeled as "organic" in the EU will have to use "made from organic grapes" in the US. This is the designation smart buyers should look for. Ironically, wines that say "made from organic grapes" in the US may be labeled as "organic wine" if exported to the EU.

The semantic distinction is rather silly, but important. Sulfites are crucial for wine production; wine is not likely to have fresh fruit flavors and aromas without them.

(By the way, you are not allergic to sulfites.)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

TTB survives, though Obama wants to give IRS a little of its powers

The TTB will survive in its current form for at least another year. While the Obama administration considered eliminating it and dividing its duties between the FDA and the IRS, when the budget proposal came out Monday, that idea was not in it.

However, the administration did propose what seems to me a minor change, allowing the IRS to initiate investigations and prosecutions for excise tax violations on alcohol sales.

The Wine Institute was ready with heavy artillery to fight this. I have a copy of a letter the Wine Institute got signed by seven U.S. senators opposing this move. Wine America opposes it also.

Quite honestly, I'm not sure why. It doesn't seem like a big deal. But the Wine Institute spends a lot more time thinking about excise tax than I do. I plan to contact the Wine Institute as soon as I get home from Portugal (lucky me) to get more details.

For now, I felt like I owed you this update, considering more than 10,000 people came to my blog when I broke the news that the administration was considering eliminating the TTB this year.

I also want to snivel and whine and make excuses for a very light week on the blog. Here's my tale of woe: I set up two posts for this week, one imaginative, and one which I spent a day researching. Then I made the mistake of opening them to make last minute tweaks in Portugal with my iPad, which is not compatible with Blogger. They disappeared instantly. Man, did that suck. I know I can't expect a lot of sympathy since I'm eating roast pig leg and grilled razor clams and drinking outstanding single variety Vinho Verdes that I didn't even know existed. But still, that sucked.

Update: It just happened again, twice, with this post. Even I don't deserve this. I don't know which to blame, Apple or Google. I hate them both right now.

I plan to reconstruct the posts when I get home (spoiler alert: politics and baseball, my two favorite things to try to link to wine), as well as check in with the Wine Institute on the TTB thing. So thanks for reading this off-the-cuff update. I'll bring you more details when I have them. And pass the Loureiro.


Please check out my Valentine's Day anti-column on Palate Press: Let's Take the Romance Out of Wine. Appropriately, I spent V-Day apart from my lovely wife, and the rural restaurant where I dined -- where every table other than the wine group's was set for two with candles and hearts -- played "All By Myself" over and over. Maybe they just like the melody?


I rarely acknowledge my wife on the blog, but I'm writing this on V-Day. I love travel, I'm having a great time, I'm eating and drinking well and the story's really interesting. But I miss her. Ai shite iru.
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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Vintners Hall of Fame induction tickets still available

If the idea of rubbing elbows with some of the great historic figures in California wine appeals to you, next Monday is your chance. Tickets are still available for the 6th Vintners Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Monday, Feb. 20.

The event is much more affordable this year: $175, which includes dinner and plenty of wines from Hall member-associated wineries -- as well as wines that have been served in the past at the White House.

Dinner is again in the popular walk-around format in the CIA kitchens. CIA graduate chefs, some who are now culinary celebrities, will each prepare one signature dish. I hope Rep. Mike Thompson is also once again making and serving his own risotto. It takes chutzpah for a Congressman to play chef in that crowd, but the man can cook.

The food is good, but what makes the event unique is the unmatched opportunity for casual conversation. At winemaker dinners, you generally sit at a large table and don't get a lot of personal interaction. Here, if you want to chat with Hall of Famers like Joel Peterson, Randall Grahm, Gerald Asher or Darrell Corti, you can just mingle with them by the mushroom soup (boy, I hope that stuff's there again.)

The emotional highlight this year might be when 95-year-old Peter Mondavi, Sr. is inducted. It will also be nice to see Richard Sanford recognized for his pioneering role on the Central Coast. But you never know how funny or moving the ceremony for individual inductees might be. Last year, the relatives of August Sebastiani made his induction a highlight.

This year's induction class: Joe Heitz, Eugene Hilgard, Peter Mondavi, Sr., Myron Nightingale, John Parducci, Richard Sanford, Albert Winkler.

If you'd like to mingle with me for some reason -- normally I'm relatively interesting, but not in this crowd -- I'll be there as my role as Chairman of the Electoral College. I'll be trying to soak up some of the oral history of wine. The presence of so many good wines usually helps facilitate that.

Here's a link for ticket info.Hope to see you there.

Vintners Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony
Monday, Feb. 20, 4 p.m. reception; 5:30 ceremony; 6:30 dinner
CIA Greystone, St. Helena
Tickets: $175 ($100 is tax-deductible)

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Thursday, February 9, 2012

EU decides "organic wine" can contain sulfites

While "organic wine" in the U.S. is a minor category, it's about to become big in Europe. The EU has ruled the exact opposite of the US: that "organic wine" can contain sulfites.

The EU will restrict the amount of sulfites they may contain: 100 ppm total for red wine, 150 ppm for white or rosé, as opposed to the 10 ppm allowed (and only when naturally occurring) in U.S. "organic wine." (Conventional wines in the US are allowed 350 ppm.)

This is a huge difference. In covering this issue, I have spoken to several natural wine producers -- leaders in the "green wine" field -- who said they might take the steps to be certified organic wine producers if allowed to add 50 ppm of sulfites to protect their wines from bacteriological harm. Wine doesn't get greener than the Natural Process Alliance, but the NPA adds sulfites. That should tell you something.

Until this week, there has been no such thing as "organic wine" in the EU, only "wine made from organically grown grapes," a category that also exists here. EU "organic wine" will have restrictions on winemaking -- including no addition of sorbic acid -- in addition to restrictions on viticulture. European consumers who prefer to drink wine that's closer to being a natural product, but who don't want their wine to taste spoiled, will now have the benefit of official certification.

Of course, we won't see these "organic wine" labels in the US because these wines won't meet US standards. The USDA, which simply does not understand wine the way the EU does, ruled in December that "organic wine" cannot contain sulfites. This doomed "organic wine" in the US to continue being a tiny niche product for well-meaning, uninformed consumers.

Once people learn something about wine, they move away from the "organic wine" shelf, which more than one retailer told me compares to "kosher wine" as a death knell for sales to anyone other than those who feel the obligation to buy them. This is due to the lousy taste of most US "organic wine," and that has much to do with the absence of sulfites.*

* (By the way, gentle reader: You are not allergic to sulfites.)

It's popular on both sides of the aisle in US politics these days to bash European politicians for their foolishness: the right thinks the EU gives too many entitlements; the left thinks the EU is too in love with austerity. It's hard to say whether the EU has a better or worse grip on fiscal policy than the US.

But the EU does know wine, and that was reflected in this sensible ruling. Bravo, Eurocrats, you got one right.

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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Villain who burned others' wine gets 27 years

Mark Christian Anderson. Photo courtesy Sausalito PD
California is releasing 34,000 non-violent prisoners because of a federal court order on overcrowding, which means anybody who commits crimes against property, not people, has a pretty good chance of walking free these days.

Fortunately, the worst wine villain of this millennium was tried in federal court, not state court. Mark Christian Anderson might not serve all of the 27-year sentence he got Tuesday, but it's a pretty good bet that he's had his last glass of wine for at least a decade.

Good. This is a guy who stole from other people's wine collections, and when facing charges for embezzling, he tried to destroy the evidence by torching a giant wine warehouse, destroying 6 million bottles of wine. The repercussions were horrible: some wineries, like Saintsbury, lost their entire libraries. 

Perhaps it's unseemly for me to cheer bloodthirstily for Anderson's sentence, which was more than 11 years longer than the prosecutor recommended. That's a HUGE difference, and might mean Anderson, 63 -- who has been in prison since 2007 -- never gets out.

It's certainly not good journalism on my part, as I worked on the news stories seven years ago about the arson. But it was never my job to cover the trial, only the impact on the wineries involved, and it was immense. Example: Realm Cellars lost an entire vintage when it was just starting out. Normally that would be a story, but I talked to so many better-known wineries that were also devastated that I didn't even have space for it.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Wine with brunch: what do you drink?

I polished off a dim sum article this week, which should run shortly. While making my last visit, I got to talking about wine with dim sum.

I've had delicious wines with dim sum, most recently when Jamie Kutch joined me and friends at Hong Kong Lounge and brought some of his elegant Pinots Noir. But on my own, I never think to bring wine to dim sum, even though I often eat it at noon or just after.

However, I have a glass of wine with lunch all the time, particularly on weekends. And I don't think twice about attending wine events at lunchtime and having multiple glasses there.

Why the difference? To me, dim sum is brunch, and I don't usually drink at brunch. I think it's a psychological barrier.

But I'm the worst person to write about wine with brunch because I confess, I never go to American-style brunch. I know mimosas sell like hotcakes. But a mimosa isn't wine: it's a sweet cocktail. I could make you one with orange juice, shochu and sparkling water such that you wouldn't be able to tell the difference.

So I got to wondering: do you drink wine with brunch? If so, what kind of wine? Bubbly? Big reds with sausage and eggs?

I have no answers here, only questions. Let me know if you've got the answers.

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Thursday, February 2, 2012

Obama considers huge shakeup in alcohol law, eliminating TTB

US alcohol law could be on the verge of a huge shakeup. The Obama administration is considering eliminating the TTB, the agency currently in charge, and divvying up its duties between the IRS and the FDA.

The implications are huge, and the wine industry is afraid -- although it might be a good move for consumers. But I might be wrong, as the FDA doesn't do a good job of regulating food. And one wine industry spokesman described the move as a "power grab" by the FDA. The IRS would collect taxes; the FDA would be in charge of everything else.

A few things that might result: Ingredient listings on wine labels ("Honey, this wine has fish bladders in it.") Calorie counts. Wilder wine label designs with no-holds-barred graphic images (I'd give "Living Dead Red" a shot.)

And here's one I'd like to see: More accurate labeling of alcohol percentage.

The nix-the-TTB suggestion was in a memo last year from the Office of Management and Budget to the Treasury Department. Next week, when the new federal budget proposal is delivered, we'll see if the White House is planning to go forward.

To discuss what the move might mean, I called Michael Kaiser, director of communications for Wine America, which represents wineries in dealing with Congress.