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.