Thursday, May 31, 2012

Lodi finally finds its Grand Cru vineyard

Vineyard manager Kevin Phillips in the 127-year-old Bechthold Vineyard in Lodi

Until last week, I always had a hard time writing about Lodi. I'm not alone: considering how much wine is made there, you don't read much about it.

The problem isn't that the wines are bad; that's not true at all. If you've ever had a California appellation wine, particularly red, that you liked, odds are good that many of the grapes came from Lodi.

The problem is that while usually competent, Lodi wines are rarely exciting, which may be because of fertile soil that's well-suited to volume. I like Uvaggio's Vermentino a lot because it's a balanced, dependable wine with some character, and that's the first Lodi wine that -- until last week -- springs to my mind. There are some Zinfandels from very old vineyards that are pretty good, although there's an ongoing tendency to hide them in blends or too much oak.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Corsican wine tasting: smell that pricey real estate

Sorry it's not a great map; it was on the back of the menu
Corsica is a forsaken island, but only in the wine world. Discovered by European tourists decades ago, the rugged island just north of Sicily has high real-estate prices and a tradition of character-filled table wines.

Unfortunately those two characteristics don't coexist well. Corsican wine isn't cheap by world standards and wineries there have little incentive to try to work the US market, as they can sell most of their output either at home or in Paris to locals seeking a taste memory of their vacation.

We probably wouldn't have Corsican wines here at all if Berkeley-based importer Kermit Lynch didn't spend a third of every year at his home in southern France. He took some vacations in Corsica, fell in love with the island, and started drinking the wines.

I recently attended a Corsican wine dinner at Café Rouge in Berkeley, where 8 wines from Lynch's Corsican portfolio were poured.

Barbara Haim, Café Rouge wine director, said, "A lot of (Corsican) wines taste to me like if you took the southern Rhone and Italy and put them together." There's a lot of truth to that, as you can see by my tasting notes. The main white grape is Vermentino; the main red grape is Niellucciu, which is the same genetically as Sangiovese. But the blending grapes are mostly French.

Friday, May 25, 2012

State-by-state wine tax rates

A little vinegary treat for Memorial Day weekend, courtesy of the Tax Foundation.

Taxation is a zero-sum game. If, like Florida, you have no state income tax, you have to raise money somewhere, in this case with a "sin tax" on wine that is 10 times that of California's. Florida consumes the second-most wine in the US. Rise up, Florida wine drinkers!

Of the big wine-producing states, Washington has the highest taxes, which can't help the local industry.

There isn't much California and Texas have in common politically, but I'm glad we can break bread on this issue. I'd rather see sugary sodas taxed than wine -- oops, just lost Texas. Ah well, enjoy the map, have a nice holiday.

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

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Low-alcohol lovers have high-alcohol winemakers worried

The battle over alcohol levels has been going on ever since California winemakers discovered in the '90s that they could get higher scores from James Laube and Robert Parker by letting the grapes hang an extra week or so.

The high-alcohol forces have pretty much ruled the battlefield ever since: they got the scores, they made the money, they drove the nice cars and bought the big houses. And the high-alcohol wine philosophy spread around the world: "riper is better" brought recognition to Argentina and Australia, created whole new categories of wine in Italy and Spain, and if you think they weren't paying attention in Bordeaux, take a look at the fine print on your wine bottles.

Some of this is natural, as improved farming methods have led to more consistent ripening, and there's also this liberal hoax called "global warming." (Thermometers are controlled by socialists!)

But the attitude that higher alcohol is by itself is not an issue to be addressed, and the corresponding attitude that there is no upper limit for how high alcohol can be in a good wine -- these are new philosophies, less than 20 years old for an industry that has been around for centuries.

A decade ago, people who disagreed with these ideas were definitely on the outside. Some were  extremists, with philosophies like "wine must be under 14% alcohol or I won't taste it!" In public forums they often had that mad-eyed look that you get from walking a picket line in the sun for hours on end. The calm, intelligent responses that you get from Wine Spectator on this issue, and the professional aloofness of Parker, made a successful contrast: people who wanted lower-alcohol wines were the fringe.

The "balance backlash" has gathered steam over the last five years, and without anybody realizing, it may have passed a tipping point.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Luminesce's Kevin Law speaks softly and makes great Pinot Noir

We live in a world of self-promotion, and some of us are less comfortable in it than others.

Last month I sat with a roundtable of 8 winemakers at Presqu'ile owner Matt Murphy's home, and the resulting conversation became my column this month for Palate Press.

Ironically, the one winemaker I didn't quote at all, Kevin Law, made wines that impressed all of us.

It wasn't that Law didn't speak. I tasted two wines from each winemaker, and we talked about them, and the general conversation went where it went (inexorably into the topic of alcohol level). Law was just too polite to jump into the current.

So because Law's not going to blow his horn, let me do it for him: this guy makes delicious wines; my notes for one read: "Just a great expression of Pinot Noir." His label, Luminesce, is new, but he's not a newcomer to the field, as he spent seven years as assistant winemaker at Tantara before going out on his own last year.

I asked what his philosophy is.

Monday, May 21, 2012

How much does personal taste matter in judging?

When judging a wine, how much weight should you give your personal tastes? Much depends on your role: wine buyers for Costco must pick crowd pleasers, while at Arlequin Wine Merchant they can stock whatever they damn well please.

But what about critics? Should Robert Parker et al acknowledge good qualities in wines they don't personally like?

Here's what got me thinking about this.

Michael Apstein, a colleague I have known for years, doesn't like fruit flavors in wine. We are very different there. He's an Old World drinker who likes secondary characteristics; he prizes elegance and balance and walks away from any sign of excess in oak, fruit or alcohol. He once said to me, "If I wanted juicy fruit flavors I would drink fruit juice."

We were paired last weekend at Critics Challenge, a San Diego wine competition, at my request. I also prize elegance and balance, but our opinions on fruit flavors are so different that, given the way Critics Challenge works, we are the perfect couple. At this competition, each wine is tasted by two writers but we don't have to agree. The wine gets whatever the best result is. In other words, if I give it a gold medal and he makes a frowny face, it gets a gold, and only I see his frowny face. Michael said, "No good wine is getting past this table."

We had a long flight of Cabernet Sauvignons on Saturday morning. Not only do I like fruit far more than Michael; I'm somewhat more tolerant of oak and alcohol. These wines had all three of those in spades.

So who ended up being more generous to these wines?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

10 steps to being a good dinner-party guest

Throwing a dinner party in the 21st century has become a nightmare. Hosts have to keep track of everyone's dietary concerns, which come in more flavors than ever. (Can vegans sit with paleos? Is polenta acceptable on Atkins?)

An invitation to dinner at someone's home is a gift. When you receive one, you also have a role to play: that of the good guest. Here's how to do it.

1. Don't dither on accepting.

Check your calendar and give a yes or no within 2-3 days. There's a grace period for changing your mind, but the hosts need to know if the dinner can happen on that day or not.

When accepting, this is the time to mention your legitimate dietary concerns: you're a vegetarian, or worse, a vegan. You're allergic to (or in my case) physically intolerant of shellfish or nuts or tomatoes. You're kosher.

When is the right time to say you like potatoes, but not if they're too mushy, and you only eat grass-fed free-range meat? Never. This is not your home; it's theirs.

2. If you need to cancel, do so at least 48 hours in advance.

Don't let your hosts waste expensive perishables on a no-show. Emergencies happen; foreseeable problems ("I had to work late") are not emergencies. Leave work on time for once.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

My hero, wine forger Rudy Kurniawan

Wine forger Rudy Kurniawan deserves to go to prison. The evidence seized by the FBI seems damning. Everyone knew he was selling forged wines, and when his house was raided, agents found a whole setup for creating fake bottles of rare wine.

Rudy Kurniawan deserves to go to prison. But reading this outstanding story by Ben Wallace in New York magazine, I cheered for him all the same.

There are no victims in Kurniawan's crimes who don't deserve a comeuppance, and where else are they going to get it in the US today? The wine-auction scene is full of powerful assholes: wine hoarders who nickname themselves "the Punisher" and "King Angry" and brag about the great wines they own.

These are not wine lovers. Wine lovers have a great bottle of Burgundy they love with a friend or two and savor every sip; they don't go on a website and show off the vintages they own just to make others jealous. These braggarts are the perverts of the wine world, treating wine as pornography to be ogled and airbrushed and pumped up to perfection. Do they care what a wine tastes like, or only if it has a perfect score from Parker?

Monday, May 14, 2012

5 most exciting California counties on a wine list

This view of Bien Nacido Vineyard was so exciting I yelled "pull over" at the winemaker driving the truck
Just because a region makes great wine doesn't mean it's exciting to order. It would be easy to list the top 5 California wine regions by production size or by 100-point scores.

But which 5 California counties add the most thrill to a wine list?

Excitement comes from some combination of quality, uniqueness and scarcity. I could drink Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs all day, but it's not unusual. Even people who love Silver Oak Cabernet, admit it, does seeing it on the list make your heart beat faster? That's why the Lake Vineyard wine from Diamond Creek is the winery's most exciting; they don't make much and they don't make it every year.

But obscurity by itself isn't enough. I'd probably order a Grenache Blanc from Calaveras County, but only if I really trusted the sommelier.

I could divide this by wine regions; the words "Sonoma Coast" make my heart beat faster than "Sonoma County." And maybe I will in a subsequent post. But for now, here are the 5 Most Exciting California Counties on a Wine List.

5. Santa Barbara

This is such a young region; people are still figuring out what's best. It's home to great Syrah and some nice cool climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and new labels  pop up as fast as dreamers can create them. I'm still jazzed about even the "standards," like Qupe and Au Bon Climat. Winery to try: Luminesce Cellars.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Wine without preservatives: a moral dilemma

I had a conversation last week by email with a former coworker that raised a moral dilemma.

How much effort should I make every day in helping spread knowledge about wine?

My friend rents out a room in her San Francisco home periodically and has managed to get clients from Japan. A woman visiting her this week wants to go to wine country, but doesn't want to rent a car. My friend knows I wrote a book in Japanese about California wine and asked for my advice on which wine country bus tour is best. I told my friend, who can use the income, that she should agree on a price with her guest and take her herself.

She asked where I recommended. I suggested Dry Creek Valley. My friend likes Zinfandel and so does her guest. Dry Creek is rural and pretty, the wineries aren't pretentious, the wines are good. I know she'd like Healdsburg, which is a great place to eat lunch. And it's an easy day trip.

Then my friend said, "Which wineries do you recommend? She wants to buy wine without preservatives."

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Adam Lee leaves wine style decisions to the vines

Adam Lee
Last week Siduri owner/winemaker Adam Lee and I got into a lengthy discussion in the comments section of my blog about wine styles. Finally I sent him an email inviting him to do a Q&A on the topic. We spoke yesterday morning while he was on his way to look at a vineyard that wants to sell him some grapes, which would push him closer to 30 different Pinots Noir that he makes from California and Oregon.

Since our discussion last week started with the concept of whether or not winemakers should criticize each others' work, we addressed that as well. Spoiler alert: I think I'll define my writing style henceforth as "not like Stephenie Meyer." I also can't wait to get my hands on some of his 2011 wines.

Me: Is there a style of wine you're trying to achieve?

Lee: I used to think so more than now. We've had a slow evolution with making picking decisions. What we're looking at is the health of the vine and the health of the fruit. It's more based on what the vine's giving you than what the wine from this particular place is supposed to be. The vine doesn't give a damn about the type of wine you're making. It's trying to propagate itself, to spread itself out there by making more seeds. What we need to try to do is work with the vine to help it give the best fruit.

Me: Shouldn't your concerns be different from what the vine wants?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Domaine Carneros makes a great white Pinot Noir

You could theoretically make a white wine from most red grapes by removing the skins from the juice immediately. Generally you wouldn't want to, because it's not a red grape's best use.

Domaine Carneros "Pinot Clair" White Pinot Noir 2010 ($48) is an exception, and one of the most interesting and pleasurable wines I've had this year. I asked winemaker TJ Evans (hired to make still wines under head winemaker Eileen Crane) about it.

Me: How did you make it? Specifically, how is it white?

Evans: The grapes are night-picked. When they are harvested and pressed cool, there is less likely to be color leached from the skins. The grapes must be pressed very patiently, slowly and gently. The yields are 2/3 of normal. The juice is fermented in a variety of containers, including neutral oak, stainless steel barrels, and of course the concrete egg.

Me: Why did you make it?

Evans: I wanted to explore the taste and texture of Pinot Noir without the influence of the skins. I was curious if there would be a more pure translation of the notion of identity, and if one could taste it. This concept has been popularized by the term terroir.

Me: How did you choose the grapes for it? Are there different characteristics you seek in a Pinot Noir that will be white?

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Thoughts on wine judging: Are 3 opinions better than 5?

Since I'm not an athlete, this is my chance to hoist the Stars and Stripes
I'm flying home today from Portugal, where I just spent three days judging about 150 wines at Concours Mondial, Europe's biggest wine competition. I have to brag that I was a Jury President this year, the only one from the USA.

In past years I just worried about my own opinion of the wines. I enjoy discussing wines with other judges, but this year, because I collected the scoresheets, I really noticed how divergent the opinions of even wine professionals are.

My panel was also something of a tower of Babel, with five different first languages and no language fully shared by even three of us. That made it harder for us to influence each other, so our opinions were more pure.

It's not news that two people can taste the same wine and think differently about it. But when it comes to awarding medals, a pattern quickly emerged to the detriment of wineries that entered wanting one.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Sashi Moorman argues for lower alcohol

When Juliet Moorman, now 4, is a great winemaker, I will be proud to have been the first wine blog to publish her photo
My column this month for Wine Review Online comes from an evening I spent visiting Sashi Moorman, who is not only a great winemaker and chef; he also has good genes. His 4-year-old daughter Juliet is beyond adorable, and seems to have inherited his boundless energy. In the photo, she has decided that winemaker Rick Longoria could use a makeover. Get on that, Rick!

Sashi Moorman also sees a potential makeover in his neighborhood; he makes some interesting statements about what the future of Santa Rita Hills wines could and should be. And I can get away with running a photo of a cute kid on my blog because Juliet's palate figures into the story. Unfortunately WRO doesn't allow comments on its pages, and I know Adam Lee at least has something to say, so I invite you to read it and then post your comments here.

I'm in Portugal with crappy wifi so please forgive me if I don't have any posts until the middle of next week. But when I'm back, I'll be back with a bullet. Metaphorically speaking. You can't get a bullet through US customs. Memo to TSA: Just kidding! Don't taze me, man.

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

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Chardonnay round table: On oak, alcohol and more

Check out that alcohol percentage
In June, Santa Barbara County will host a Chardonnay symposium, moderated by Steve Heimoff. I had the opportunity recently to bring together some of the principals behind the symposium to talk about Chardonnay.

I'll be honest: I couldn't resist the opportunity to present Heimoff's seminar nearly two months before he does.

So here's a round table discussion about Chardonnay from some of the leading producers in Santa Barbara County. We tasted a lot of their wines while talking, and I'll have a surprisingly strong statement on that next week, but not today.

Laura Booras-Mosheni, Riverbench: I think Chardonnay got a bad rap. People were used to that oaky, buttery Chardonnay. But when you hit that balance perfectly, it's such a good wine.

Dieter Cronje, Presqui'le: Left alone, Chardonnay's a really good indicator of terroir.

Matt Murphy, Presqui'le: If you pick at the right time from vineyards that have been farmed right.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Global warming makes Barbaresco more New World

Aldo Vacca
Produttori del Barbaresco producer Aldo Vacca says that even if northern Italian winemakers want to, there's no way to consistently produce the lovely age-worthy wines of 30 years ago, because Mother Nature won't cooperate.

"In old vintages, September was a difficult month," Vacca says. "It was a struggle to ripen the grapes and that struggle showed in the wines. These were wines of strong acidity, with powerful tannins. They were difficult to drink in their youth. In the new millenium starting from about '03, September is a summer month. It's easy to ripen the grapes."

It's hard not to think about the cold, rainy Septembers northern California had in '10 and '11 and wonder: has Mother Nature decided it's time for Italy and California to change wine styles

I caught up with Vacca last month at Oliveto restaurant in Oakland, one of the few Bay Area restaurants to have a significant cellar of older wines, and it doesn't charge exorbitant prices for them. (Check out the "Wine in Time" menu pdf.) Vacca poured six of his older vintages at a single dinner, which was both an embarrassment of riches and a lesson in the vagaries of age.

Vacca has been with Produttori del Barbaresco since 1991, just after three consecutive vintages acclaimed by Wine Spectator and the Wine Advocate brought attention to what had been a neglected region, considered far below Barolo. "When I started, there was a cage full of naked bottles sitting in the corner," he said. "I asked the cellar master, 'What's that?' He said, 'I think it's the '79. It's been sitting here for a few years.' The wine was great. But there wasn't a perception that it was something special.