Monday, April 30, 2012

BevMo's best Moscato: Cameron Hughes Lot 311

Moscato is the hottest wine on the US market. Sales have tripled in less than three years. People buying it aren't generally doing so at the French Laundry or some specialty wine shop. They're getting it as cheaply as possible, often at grocery stores.

But sometimes they're making forays into stores like Beverages & More. Recently I asked Wilfred Wong, BevMo's ebullient cellarmaster, if I could taste all of the Moscatos that BevMo has in stock.

Wong invited me to BevMo's new headquarters in Concord, where he has a freshly built WongCave that's perfect for all the professional tasting he does: multi-temperature fridges, wine glass-specific dishwasher. I'm jealous, and so is Christian Bale. But Wilfred takes better tasting notes than Batman. (Typical Batman note: "Cherry. Pyrazines. MegaPurple. A hint of strychnine. Alfred, antidote please.")

We tasted a lot of Moscatos, and friends, it was a grim business. Lots of sweetness with strong chemical notes. Let me be like Napa Valley Grapegrowers and be the first to call it: The Joker is behind this Moscato craze.

But this was the best of the bunch, clearly made at least by Catwoman and possibly even a member of the Justice League. It's also available at Costco, so pick it up for all those non-wine-drinking friends you're planning to convert. As for me, I would like it best after the meal, in place of dessert.

Cameron Hughes Lot 311 Moscato d'Asti 2011 ($10)
A pretty wine, with light floral notes and lychee fruit on both the nose and palate. Sweet and delicate, with a low level of fizz that's enough to carry the sugar.
I reached Hughes by email in Mexico (Me: "Are you sourcing a Tequila?" Hughes: "No, just drinking it and doing a wee bit of surfing.") and he says that even in a tight market for real Moscato d'Asti from Italy, he has two producers in Asti making the wine for him and expects to have plenty of it next vintage as well.

So that's what he looks like without the mask

Hughes adds: "The Italians laugh at the Moscato craze as they have been doing it for centuries. Nevertheless they're not above making a buck." And neither is he. I could almost hear him laughing in the email. Wait a minute ... could Cameron Hughes, a man whose livelihood depends on keeping secrets, actually be ...

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Friday, April 27, 2012

Napa Valley Grapegrowers issue earliest harvest report ever: 2012 is great!

I got this press release yesterday. In other news, the San Francisco 49ers announced a ticker-tape parade for their 2013 Super Bowl victory!

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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Talking shit with Trey Fletcher at Bien Nacido Vineyards

Few vineyards in California -- or anywhere, really -- are as beautiful as Bien Nacido in Santa Maria Valley
Trey Fletcher, the new winemaker for Bien Nacido Vineyards, thrusts a pile of shit at my nose. "Take a whiff of that," he says.

Fletcher is creating single-variety compost for the large vineyard in Santa Maria Valley. He's got individual piles of cow, sheep, horse and goat shit, and he's experimenting to see which creates the best hummus for natural fertilizer for his vines. He may end up using horse shit on one Pinot block, perhaps sheep shit on the Chardonnay, just to see if it makes a difference.

Here, stick this in your nose, Blake! Straight from the horse's, um ...
The one he asks me to sample is horse. It's pretty early in the morning for this, but I lean forward to smell it, which is a lot less commitment than Fletcher, who enthusiastically plunged his hands right into the pile. It doesn't smell, er, horsey; it smells like rich dirt.

"Compost is a lot like wine," he says. "It ferments like wine, and you have to keep an eye on it. I love doing this. This shit is epic." Fletcher keeps sprinklers in his big piles of shit to make sure it doesn't dry out, because then it would turn to dust and blow away (and you wonder where house dust comes from.)

"You must go over big with the ladies," I say. Fletcher, 31, does have a girlfriend, but she doesn't share his love of manure. "The first time I did this, we inoculated a manure pile over 1/4 mile long. She wouldn't even let me in the bedroom."

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Suckling vs. Miller: The difference between scandals

Jay Miller of the Wine Advocate and James Suckling of "I'm Here" have both been embroiled in scandals regarding payments for reviews in the last year. Miller resigned his position; Suckling can't really resign from being himself, though he could consider firing his hair stylist.

There's a tendency to lump them together, especially because as Evan Dawson points out, one of the reactions to media coverage of both has been to threaten groundless libel lawsuits in an attempt to shut up bloggers like myself. (Didn't work, nyah nyah.)

Moreover, the blogosphere generally dislikes both men for different reasons. Miller had been mocked for years for his overenthusiastic 100-point scores for big syrupy wines. I don't see as many people mocking Suckling for his palate or his ratings, but his personality ... well, take a look at the "I'm Here" video.

But there's an essential difference between the scandals, and it is this: If the worst thing Miller had been accused of, and has since been exonerated of, had been true, that would truly have been a scandal.

I simply don't see a scandal in the worst thing Suckling was accused of, until he started lying about it. If he would only be honest, we could all move on.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Bonny Doon Querry: hard cider from Randall Grahm

Randall Grahm can't help himself. Sometimes he's an astute businessman who foresees the Riesling boom coming and founds a company, Pacific Rim, to surf that wave. But more often, he likes to drink something and decides to make it himself: damn the logistics, full speed ahead.

That's why he's now in the cider business. He just likes the cider from Asturia, Spain, and decided to try his hand at making it.

For a guy who's one of the best promoters in the wine industry, he's not telling many people about his cider; heck, he hasn't even sent James Laube a bottle yet. I happened to be eating in the same restaurant as Grahm last weekend -- Oliveto in Oakland -- and saw it on the wine list. So I ran to his table and said, "You're making cider?" Without evicting his daughter from his lap, he told me the story.

For his first vintage, 2010, Grahm miscalculated how much pressure the in-bottle fermentation would cause and Boom! Half the bottles he filled exploded. Now he's worked out that problem, so fruit sourcing is his biggest issue.

Spain grows apples specifically for cider; they have more acidity and less sugar than eating apples. Those apples probably exist somewhere in California, but Grahm had a hard time sourcing them, so he decided to make the cider from apples, pears and quince.

The production may be a hassle, but the finished product is quite good. Bonny Doon Querry ($16) is very fruit-forward, yet dry and refreshing. Apple is the dominant flavor, but there's a waxiness to the aroma, possibly from the quince, that gives it good complexity. It's just 7% alcohol and is lightly sparkling.

The Spanish drink cider with mild blue cheese -- well, in Asturia they drink it with everything. I found Querry refreshing in the middle of a meal, as a change-of-pace palate cleanser. I can also see it as an interesting beer alternative with salty snacks while watching football. Maybe that's lowbrow, but in Asturia they're more famous for how they pour cider than how they drink it, so pairing with football might elevate it a notch. And it's nice to see Randall Grahm score another esoteric goal.

You can order Querry from the Bonny Doon website.

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

Monday, April 23, 2012

Harris Ranch prime rib sandwich: Best lunch on I-5

If you live in California long enough, you will travel the culinary wasteland of I-5 between Los Angeles and northern California. It's possible that the obsession with In-N-Out's secret menu comes from the fact that there's almost nothing better on this heavily traveled road.

Harris Ranch stands out as the only real sit-down restaurant worth patronizing. It has its own passionate fan base, older than In-N-Out's and less likely to blog about its menu. Everything about Harris Ranch seems targeted at retired carnivores: the pictures of race horses (one named "Soviet Problem") on the walls, the benches upholstered in Holstein.

But there's a reason people brave the aroma of cattle farming to spend the night here: this place has great meat. I prefer to eat in the "Jockey Club," which is what they call the bar, although I never notice anyone there who could come close to making weight, nor would the menu help in that endeavor.

I'm too cheap to spend more than $30 for a steak for a highway lunch, which is how I discovered the "prime rib sandwich." For $18.95, you get a large slab of meat -- I get mine rare -- on a throwaway piece of bread. The meat is well-marbled, tender and flavorful. I get the wedge-cut fries, and they're well-seasoned, slightly crisp on the outside with a yielding center. You get small dipping bowls of au jus and a delicious horseradish sauce that I like on the fries as much as on the meat.

The CHP doesn't seem to hang out outside Harris Ranch, which is a good thing because they have a respectable all-California wine list, including about a dozen reds by the glass. My favorite of what's on there right now is Jenner Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, but that's because I like an edgier wine.

Leaving Harris Ranch, pulling back onto I-5 filled with beef and Pinot Noir: this is why cruise control was invented.

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Friday, April 20, 2012

Working man's lunch in the heart of Côte-Rôtie

The vineyards of Côte-Rôtie loom above the town of Ampuis
The steep vineyards of Côte-Rôtie are not only breathtaking; they were a relief to see, as they meant not only was I not lost; I was about to have lunch.

I drove into Côte-Rôtie from the west using only a GPS, with no map. The closer I got, the more winding and tiny the roads are. The GPS said "recalculating" at every hairpin turn. Big trucks occasionally forced me to drive my rental car into a ditch to get out of their way.

But finally the road dumps me into the town center of Ampuis. Two men sit outside a bar-restaurant-hotel across the street from the church, enjoying a carafe of wine with lunch. I wander in to discover the 10-table place nearly full, with a crowd of working men in stained jeans standing at the bar, most of them having a beer in the heart of the region that makes the best Syrah in the world.

This is a rugby fans' restaurant, with posters of regional champions on the walls. A big flat screen TV plays a cheezy British detective show, "Inspecteur Barnaby." A friendly brown and white spaniel pads over to check me out and spends a few minutes at my feet before looking for a better offer. The hostess is large and walks with a limp to my table, but she's pleasant.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Stoller Vineyards winemaker turns from naturopathic medicine to Pinot

Melissa Burr tells one of the best stories I've heard about how she became a winemaker.

A third-generation Oregonian to the core, Burr got an AA after high school and then took six years off to travel, meeting her future husband along the way. "We did a lot of extracurricular things not for publication," she said.

Eventually she decided to return to college to study naturopathic medicine, while her husband studied viticulture because his father owns a vineyard; they worked there together in the summer before resuming school at Portland State.

A brief flashback: Bill Stoller, who made his money in the temporary staffing industry, had purchased Oregon's largest turkey farm in 1993. With help from Chehalem co-owner Harry Peterson-Nedry, he planted tightly spaced vines of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. By 2001, when Burr graduated with her B.S. in pre-med, they were up to 80 acres and had no winemaker.

Not sure yet if she preferred wine or medicine, Burr took an internship at Cooper Mountain Vineyards in 2001. "Four days before the fruit came in, the winemaker quit," she says. "It was just me and the vineyard crew. We did 16,000 cases."

Burr was suddenly a winemaker. Meanwhile, Peterson-Nedry was making both Chehalem's wines and Stoller's, and looking to get away from the latter.

In 2003, Burr went to Steamboat, a winemaker's conference, and met Bill and Cathy Stoller. They interviewed her over the course of four months and then offered her the job.

"I was excited, it was a big challenge," Burr said. "Then, two weeks later I found out I was pregnant with my first son. I always wanted to be a mom. But it was all happening at once."

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A random conversation about food in Death Valley

I'm at Dante's View, enjoying sunset, talking with a couple from France whose English is correct but labored. They think Americans are nice and our country is beautiful but our food is terrible. We tell them they're in the desert, and food in cities is better. We learn they're going to LA next and advise them to get Mexican food. The woman says, "But that is not traditional American food."

I tell them that this is what the United States is: more than 10% of our citizens foreign-born. I live in a city that's more than 40% Asian; Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine are part of our traditional foods. We tell them California was Mexico before it was the United States. Tacos, burritos, enchiladas: this is American food too, at least in California. We leave out that George W. Bush loves tacos.

We give them a few restaurant recommendations for their visit to Berkeley, but they're skeptical; why should they come to the US to eat Japanese food? OK, fine, they're not my concern.

They ask what we do for a living. My friend says he works in the wine industry. I say, "I write about wine and food." She doesn't understand. I say it again, gesturing like I'm drinking and eating. Then I switch to French, and this anecdote becomes about how bad my French sounds.

I say, "J'ecris des histoires sur les vins et [la cuisine.]" I put this in brackets because that's what I intended to say.

She says, "La cousine?" I say, "[La cuisine.]" She says, "La cousine?" I say, "[La cuisine.]" I gesture like I'm going to put something in my mouth. She says, "La cousine?" This little couplet goes on about three more times, and once I lick my lips, trying to indicate deliciousness.

Finally her eyes widen and she says, "Oooooh, la cuisine!" It sounds slightly different from what I was saying; there's a stronger Kwee-ness to the first syllable. But it also sounds, to me, like the same word said by a different person. I stipulate, my French is awful.

She laughs. "You said you write about wines and your cousin. I wonder because you said cousin."

And I wonder, how can one stand atop a really remote mountain at sunset with a guy saying "I write about my cousin, mmmmm" and licking his lips, and not back away rapidly?

Those silly Americans. What a profession!

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

Monday, April 16, 2012

Ty-ku Sake: Beautiful bottles of mysterious origin

I want to like Ty-ku Sake. The bottles are beautiful. It's real premium sake made in Japan. It's not flavored or sweetened or made into a sake cooler, as most American companies seem to insist on doing.

If Ty-ku is successful, it could raise the profile of Japanese sake here. Most Japanese sake struggles to get into US retail stores, whereas Ty-ku was in Costco for Chinese New Year, although with the crutch of being a "sake bomb" kit. If your sake is good enough, you don't have to hide the flavor with beer.

Anyway, I was excited when offered a chance to review Ty-ku. It's a Ty-ku Review, should be in haiku.

After trying them, I wondered: who makes this stuff? You'd think I would have known that from the bottle, but good luck with that. And it matters, because I wonder about the freshness of a product that is supposed to be consumed when it's fresh.

Ty-ku was imported by Dundee Foods in Rochester, New York. The parent company, LiDestri Spirits, doesn't even mention sake on its website. And LiDestri sold its Dundee Foods facility last year. So it's a mystery.

Eventually I got this answer from a PR rep, who says she was "wrapping up her work" on Ty-ku: "LiDestri puts the sake into the bottle for TY KU. The TY KU brand is privately owned by a group of investors, and TY KU Sake Silver and Black are brewed at Umenoyado Brewery in Nara, Japan."

OK, now I know who makes it, but not who owns it. So let's just talk about the sakes.

Ty-ku Black ($25) is junmai ginjo; Ty-ku Silver ($15) is junmai. They didn't send me Ty-ku White ($130), which is made by a different brewery (Matsuyama Shuzo) in a different region, Yamagata.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Free tickets to Hopland Passport weekend

Hopland is one of my favorite cities in California for wine tasting. The main reason is because you can walk from one tasting room to another, so you don't have to spit if you don't want to.

But I also just enjoy Hopland, which is what wine country used to be like before it got glitzy. It's off the beaten path, but easily reached from San Francisco or Oakland on a day trip. It's a fun little town with an atmospheric diner, the Bluebird Cafe, that serves burgers made from wild boar, elk, ostrich and other exotica, as well as pretty good pie.

I've got two free tickets, usually $45 each, to the Hopland Passport Weekend, May 5 & 6, from 11 a.m. -- 5 p.m.

The tickets get you free wine tasting AND free food at 16 different wineries. Eight of them are right in downtown Hopland, so you can just stroll -- or roll -- between them. There's a shuttle service, or you can bring a designated driver.

More details about Hopland Passport weekend are here.

To win the tickets, leave me a comment by Sunday, Apr. 15. I'll pick one randomly and let you know the winner in the comments section, so you might want to follow comments to find out if it's you. Good luck!

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

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

New standards for Top 10 Wine Lists

When SF Weekly ran my Top 10 Wine Lists in San Francisco last week, I braced myself for the flak you get when you run a Top 10 anything.

I expected to get slammed in particular for not including most of the expensive lists you see in Zagat, Chowhound, etc.

Instead what I heard was ... quiet applause.

I'm still stunned; I've never written a Top 10 before that got less disagreement, and this was not a no-brainer; I played with the order until the last minute.

I think the reason is that I tapped into the zeitgeist about the way wine lists are evaluated. I'm not the only one tired of the formula "more + expensive = better."

And so I'm going to list here the standards that I used, in the hope that they will be more widely adopted.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Wine pairings vs. ordering one bottle: A brief tale from Coi

My wife and I went to Coi recently to get Daniel Patterson's 12-course pairing menu while it's still only $165, because it seems inevitable that he'll soon enter the price inflation of tasting menus in the Bay Area.

The food was delicate and interesting. I had the $105 wine pairings -- a 1-2 oz. pour with each course -- while my wife, a lightweight, had a glass of Champagne and a glass of Rias Baixas Albarino.

The couple at the next table had one $156 bottle of wine with the entire meal. So our wine price was fairly similar.

There's only one menu at Coi these days. The punchline at the end is what the two different parties drank.

Here are all the wine pairings I had, thanks to sommelier Roland Micu (Some of my names for the dishes are not the same as the restaurant's):

Deconstructed Caesar salad with a garum-seaweed powder tuile
Do Ferierro Rias Baixas Albarino 2010 (same thing my wife drank, good fruit but also minerality)

Friday, April 6, 2012

Top 10 Wine Lists in San Francisco: Short is beautiful

I'm writing this before seeing the flak I expect to get for the Top 10 Wine Lists in San Francisco that I chose for SF Weekly, but I'll lead with a question somebody has to ask:

"How can you leave RN74 off the list? They have 2000 wines."

The answer is simple: despite the 2000 fine wines on celebrity sommelier Raj Parr's list, RN74 is not one of the 10 San Francisco restaurants where I would most enjoy ordering a bottle of wine. And I believe a majority of SF Weekly readers would agree with me.

If I were a wealthy investor with a taste for grand cru Burgundy -- imagine if Mitt Romney were cool -- RN74 might be my No. 1. I didn't leave it off my Top 10 because the list is too long; I left it off because it's too expensive. Look at the half-bottle prices, for example, because it just takes too long to read the entire list. Hurray, 55 half-bottles of red -- but just three under $60. Half-bottles.

Most "top wine lists" articles are written for the 1%, both in funds and devotion to traditional luxury brands, and the prevailing paradigm has usually been that more = better.

Yet in all but special cases, very long wine lists are more of a hassle than a blessing.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Tony Terlato bets on Syrah

Syrah never had a Sideways curse like Merlot, but it also never had the same fan base. Syrah was considered the Next Big Thing in California in the early 1990s, but while winemakers love it, the public never agreed. Sales have been dropping for several years, and the situation is more bleak than even sales numbers show, because Syrahs are often heavily discounted to get them off the shelves.

It takes a contrarian to bet on Syrah at this moment. And that contrarian's name is Tony Terlato.

Terlato has been a true mover and shaker of the American wine market for decades. He tasted Pinot Grigio -- then an obscure variety -- in northern Italy in the late '70s and decided Americans would like it. He has build the market here for high-end Barolo and anticipated the renaissance of Greek whites. The man has a nose for the future. And he says Syrah will make a comeback.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Obama, the FDA and alcohol regulation

Last year the Obama administration contemplated putting the FDA in charge of alcohol regulation, but when it made its budget proposal, that idea wasn't included.

I got to thinking about that this week in the wake of the excellent New York Times story about conflicts between the Obama administration and the FDA.

Does the Obama administration have some ulterior motive regarding alcohol regulation? My trust level of the President isn't very high, as he seems unwilling to give up searching for votes from the social conservatives who hate him.

Regarding the FDA story, apparently Obama is letting fear of Glenn Beck overrule science when it comes to food regulation. The story cites White House fears that requiring calorie counts for movie theater popcorn -- which the FDA wants -- would be mocked on Fox.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

McGrail Vineyards: Big honor for small Livermore winery

Winemaker Mark Clarin and Heather McGrail in the McGrail vineyard
When Jim McGrail started a winery after retiring as a cop, he wasn't planning to win a major award and get famous. He just wanted his daughter to come home.

Heather McGrail had moved from the family home in Livermore to Scottsdale, Arizona because she hated her job selling wine to grocery stores for Gallo.

Jim McGrail
"I said I'd never work in the wine industry again," Heather said, standing outside the 5-year-old McGrail Vineyards winery.

She's happily doing so now, especially since McGrail won one of the biggest wine competition awards in America earlier this year: Best Red Wine from more than 5,000 wines entered in this year's San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

"It's not just the McGrails winning, it's about Livermore Valley," Jim McGrail said. "It's good to see Livermore get some credit."

The wine that won the hardware, McGrail Vineyards Reserve Livermore Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 ($36), is delicious and balanced, with plenty of cherry fruit and some toasty, spicy and savory notes. The mouthfeel is excellent, with moderate richness and some tannic pushback, yet fine acidity to make it food-friendly. I can see why the judges liked it. (Sorry folks, its fame led to it selling out, but the winery is open to the public on weekends and you can taste what they have in stock.)

A lot of what's right about this wine, and McGrail Vineyards in general, is serendipitous.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

E. & J. Gallo buys The Gray Report

W. Blake Gray gives thanks to God after selling The Gray Report for $1.65 million (Canadian)
After a short but bitter bidding war, The Gray Report has been sold to E. & J. Gallo Winery for an unexpected $1.65 million (Canadian dollars).

Gallo spokesman Bunk Moreland said that the site will look much the same as before, but the quality and consistency will be higher.

Gallo spokesman Bunk Moreland
"The Gray Report is one of the classic blogs of California but has not achieved its potential in recent vintages," Moreland said in so many words. "We plan to give the site the technology and know-how it needs to succeed, as we do with all of our acquisitions."

The sale happened quickly, when Constellation Brands made an opening offer to Gray of $15, with a spokesman saying off the record, "It'll be worth it for the spectacles alone."

Once the site was rumored to be on the market, other bidders emerged. Constellation immediately doubled its offer but was forced to withdraw when it learned it was unable to secure that much financing.