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.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Wine collectors are the scourge of wine lovers

Wine collectors are as bad for wine lovers as irresponsible mortgage brokers were for house buyers.

You'd think there would be considerable overlap between the two groups: wine collectors and wine lovers. All wine lovers have some wines stashed away, and many wine collectors genuinely enjoy drinking, not just bragging about, great wines.

In thought process, though, the overlap is less than you'd think. The wine collector position was perfectly stated in a column for Barron's last weekend by Thomas Ryder, the former head of American Express Publishing.

Ryder's column includes what might be the most arrogant statement about wine I've ever read, yet I believe it encapsulates many collectors' views. That statement is why I don't mind Rudy Kurniawan's crimes.

Ryder starts off by talking about how he fell in love with wine, sitting at the table with Paul Draper and Joe Heitz and the like; taking tasting trips to France. Stuff wine lovers do.

Then, this paragraph:

Monday, September 17, 2012

The world's biggest wine bottle

I'm just there for size comparison
If you create the world's biggest wine bottle, you get to name it. So Michel Drappier calls the 30-liter wine bottle the "Melchisedech."

He makes 25 Melchisedechs a year, and six to seven burst from the pressure. The rest he sells for 4500 euros (about $6000 each).

That might sound like a lot, but the bottle alone costs 1500 euros (about $2000) to make. And 30 liters, that's 40 normal-sized bottles of Champagne. Drappier says he doesn't make a profit on them; he just likes being the biggest.

Because of the potential for explosion, a Champagne manufacturer is an unlikely candidate to make the world's largest wine bottle. There's a good story.

"We had a good customer, a doctor whose name was Balthazar," Drappier says. "So he wanted a Balthazar (a 12-litre bottle) every year for his birthday. But he had more and more friends, and his birthday celebration got bigger and bigger. The Balthazar was too small. We created a Nebuchadnezzar (15 liters) for him. Still too small. His birthday party just got bigger every year."

Other companies make Nebuchadnezzars; not a whole lot, but they're out there. Go past 15 liters and you're into the realm of true exotica. I could not find evidence of a still wine made in anything larger than a Melchior (18 liters). Drappier blew past that years ago, special ordering from Italy a 27-liter bottle he named the Primat, and finally, the Melchisedech.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Industrial art: The beauty of fermentation tanks

These photos are from Nicolas Feuillatte, a large co-op which makes some very nice Champagnes, particularly the Palme d'Or Brut Rosé 2004, which is one of the best Champagnes I've had. I don't think they make that wine in these tanks. But this just goes to show there's beauty all around us, and sometimes you need a camera to realize it.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

California vintners: Brag about your low pH here

Hey California vintners, are you making refreshing, well-balanced wines? Then brag about them here.

Harvest threads usually tout brix level. But everybody knows California wines can get ripe, especially after a warm and dry summer like this year.

What is sometimes questioned, particularly by Europhiles, is how refreshing the wines are. The clause I get tired of reading is "California Chardonnays are ..." It's a big, diverse state, and the Chards from Sonoma Coast are nothing like each other, much less like Chards from Napa Valley.

So help me out here. Prove a point, brag, and tell the world about the low pH of the grapes you just picked for a still wine (we know sparkling grapes have low pH). Of course technical numbers aren't an assurance of a delicious wine any more than mainstream critics' numbers are. But they are an indicator of what you're trying to do.

You can list it like this: Showalter Winery, Markakis Vineyard, Anderson Valley, Pinot Meunier, Sep. 22, 3.11 pH.

As an incentive, I will write profiles on The Gray Report of the winery and/or winemaker who post  three of the lowest pHs here: white, red and a wild card, perhaps selected by other commenters. There's no end date for this; I'll start working on the profiles about Halloween. 

Don't leave me hanging out here, defending the state's diversity. Please, please, post your freshly harvested grapes' pH here. Thank you.

(Note: I'm going to clean up the comments section by deleting those that aren't about specific wines' pH.)

LEADERBOARD:  White wines
Grgich Hills, Sauvignon Blanc, American Canyon estate vineyard, 2.96 pH
Siduri, Sauvignon Musque, Russian River Valley, 3.08 pH
Bello Family Vineyards, Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley, 3.10 pH
Forlorn Hope, Gewurztraminer, Russian River Valley, 3.20 pH

Red wines: 
Siduri Bucher Vineyard Pepperwood Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, 3.35 pH
Siduri Lewis Vineyard, Russian River Valley, 3.39 pH

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

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A delicious 30-year-old rosé

Christophe Defrance holds the '82 Rosé des Riceys
Last week in France, I had perhaps the most delicious and interesting wine I've had this year: a 1982 Jacques Defrance Rosé des Riceys.

You don't expect most rosés to be good after three years, much less 30. But Rosés des Riceys are unique, a connoisseur wine that economically doesn't make sense to produce.

The Riceys region is tiny, just over 3 square miles. It's in the southernmost part of the Champagne region, less than 5 miles from the Chablis border.

It's interesting how the perception of "cool climate" changes at the border. In Chablis, the coldest part of Burgundy, we always hear how the chilly weather leads to fresh, lean, minerally wines.

Just north of the border, where it's actually colder, it's Pinot Noir country: 95% of the plantings in Ricey are Pinot Noir, and they can be some of the ripest grapes in Champagne.

The main reason Rosé des Riceys is so hard to get is that growers can easily make the same grapes into Champagne, which sells for a higher price.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Jean-Charles Boisset shows cojones by mocking Wine Spectator

Jean-Charles Boisset is a dynamic force, coming from Burgundy to buy and transform California wineries and marry Gina Gallo. You'd think he and his wife would be afraid of pissing off Wine Spectator when they have so many bottles to sell. But the man has both a sense of humor and some serious cojones.

The video is my favorite in Jordan's "Real Winemakers Read Wine Spectator Reviews" series. Lisa Mattson's work for Jordan recently won Best Winery Blog and when you see this video, it's no wonder why. Jordan's wines are perennially underrated by Spectator so perhaps the winery feels there's nothing to lose.

I feel a little bad for Spectator's Thomas Matthews because the feature they're mocking, "What We're Drinking Now," is a balance to a weakness I find in the magazine. Spectator's reporting is as good as anyone in wine, but their writing about the wines themselves often seems passionless. Matthews clearly enjoys the wines in these online reviews, and if I smoked cigars I might have written the Madeira review John Jordan mocks in another video myself.

But this one ... well, OK, just let Boisset read it to you:

I also feel a little bad running this just after my poll last week produced some embarrassing results for Wine Spectator, but the video was just released, and what the hell, it's funny. If this feels a little bad for Matthews, may I recommend some grilled prawns and an 89-point bottle of St. Aubin?

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

Thursday, September 6, 2012

81% of readers don't believe Wine Spectator

My readers clearly don't believe Wine Spectator, by a resounding margin.

However, that may actually be good for Wine Spectator.

When I posed the poll question, "Do you believe Wine Spectator bases its ratings solely on blind tasting?" I expected some cynicism. I didn't expect a landslide "No" vote. But that's what it was, with 81% voting No. Only 9% voted Yes; 10% voted I'm Not Sure.

Let me state the obvious, that this poll proves nothing about Wine Spectator's rating practices; it's only about my readers' beliefs.

Plus, this is not a random poll of wine consumers. Based on my general blog readership -- I did just win Best Industry Blog -- I assume that a lot of voters were people in the wine industry.

One popular rumor, mentioned in the comments, is that advertising in the magazine can raise scores for wines.

If most people in the industry believe that, that can only be good for Wine Spectator's bottom line.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

J. Lohr turns spinach into Pinot Noir

Steve Peck, red winemaker, and Jeff Meier, director of winemaking for J. Lohr. Nice glasses, Steve.
When nature gives you bad e-coli, make Pinot Noir.

This is today's lesson from the Santa Lucia Highlands, and the story behind J. Lohr's new Highlands Bench Pinot Noir.

Three families on Escolle Road, just west of Gonzales, had been growing green vegetables there for years, notably spinach. Spinach and Pinot Noir grapes share the love for cool, foggy mornings.

What they don't share is the same risks from wild animals.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

State Bird Provisions: California cuisine served dim-sum style

A food cart at State Bird Provisions
Last week I probably went to State Bird Provisions for the last time in a while, as Bon Appetit recently named it the Best New Restaurant in America. It's hard to disagree, as this is a completely new concept for fun/fine dining.

I love dim sum, and wonder why nobody ever thought to do this before: California cuisine served dim-sum style.

The problem with the fame is that, like the French Laundry, State Bird Provisions is now completely booked up two months in advance. The restaurant does keep some tables open for walk-ins, and on the night of our visit, one table stayed open the entire time. So you might just drop in and take your chances. Just in case, bring a Kindle.

If you do get a seat, the staff brings trays and rolls carts with small plates on them, with the prices displayed on little flags. There's never a dull moment, although it's hard to do wine pairing: I couldn't pass up a dish of beef tartare with blistered padron peppers ($8) to start, but didn't get any more red wine-friendly food for another six dishes.