Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Bad tasting note of the week

Mmm, a wine that tastes like this!
Thanks to alert reader Bob Silver, I present you the latest Bad Tasting Note of the Week.

This one comes for David Schildknecht, writing for the Wine Advocate. Many followers of the Advocate praise Schildknecht for being more restrained than his colleagues. But sometimes you get a little Syrah in you and all that goes out the window.

This review is of the RĂ´tie Cellars Northern Blend 2010 ($40), still available from the winery website in case the descriptions make your mouth water.

I prefer to run these reviews verbatim but in this case I had to put in some paragraph breaks because trying to get through this long block of copy made my head hurt.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Vodka flavors gone wild!

Is this a vodka flavor?
Which of the following is NOT an actual vodka flavor?

* Hemp seed

* Red fish

* Sangria

* Fireweed

* Marionberry

* Glazed Donut

Answer after the jump:

Monday, January 28, 2013

New critical alternative: In Pursuit of Balance wines

Raj Parr
If you're looking for an alternative in California to wines with high point scores, it's here. And I mean here, literally, because I'm running a list of wineries after the jump.

On the list: Lots of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay makers. One expensive Napa Merlot producer. Some Syrah producers. Some of California's longest-tenured winemakers, and some of its youngest.

Notably not on the list:
Cabernet Sauvignon specialists. Bubbly makers. Large companies. Flocks of wines over $100.

UPDATE: IPOB is only for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. How could I miss something so obvious? Apparently it's on the website, and the website is terrible. I apologize to readers for this misimpression.

The list comes courtesy of Raj Parr, who is as close to a star as a sommelier gets in America. Now he's trying to influence the style of wine made in America in a direction spelled out by the title of his event: In Pursuit of Balance.

Most consumers want quick, easy guidance; that's why ratings are popular. 100-point-scale ratings are inherently unfriendly to wines that don't jump up and scream at a critic during a long tasting session without food; we know that. How to reconcile the two: provide easy guidance, without giving the highest rewards to the biggest blockbusters?

That's what In Pursuit of Balance might become, in Parr's dreams: not just a group of California wines, critically screened, that are meant to go with food, but a coveted seal of approval that might influence what winemakers do.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Albert Pujols, cookware dealer's spouse

This week the Fancy Food Show was in San Francisco, bringing purveyors of canned olives together with people introducing fruit-flavored foam. It's a great opportunity for the food media to stumble around aisles full of chocolates and flavored popcorn, trying to get excited about gluten-free ramen.

Like many food media, I left Fancy Food Show almost unable to taste any more, but stopped by a secondary show called Food Fete because, with 20 vendors instead of 2000, it's easier for the brain to process.

There's a booth called "Pujols Kitchen," selling cookware, with thankfully no samples to taste, although that's also a problem for me because while I often write about food, I have never yet written about cookware.

And there's a bald-headed guy behind the booth wearing a white shirt. He's a little taller than me, seems strongly built, and looks familiar. Did he throw me out of a bar or something?

Wait a minute -- I had to ask him -- "Are you Albert Pujols?"

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Baltimore vs. San Francisco: The crab showdown

Blue crab
I spent all of my childhood in Baltimore and half of my adult life in San Francisco, so I'm very qualified to referee on the nation's most emotional, vitally important showdown:

Whose crabs are better?

First, let me state that both Blue and Dungeness crabs are worthwhile. These are not ghetto crabs, like I once ate in St. Petersburg outside a Rays' game until the fact that their flesh was black and oozing bothered me.

Blue and Dungeness are, along with Florida's stone crabs, the finest crabs America's Lower 48 have to offer. They're as good as the best crabs anywhere in the world, including zuwai gani in Hokkaido and king crabs in Alaska. Europe has world-class oysters, but it doesn't have crabs this good.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Superbrett: A wine horror story

What wine used to taste like, in 2012
Based on a true story

SAN FRANCISCO (Jan. 22, 2042):

Former winemakers and stink drinkers gathered today at the annual "Wine Remembrance" celebration to drink some old vintages and reminisce about the days before Superbrett.

Most attendees were well into their retirement years, but there was a smattering of people in their 40s. "My grandfather used to pour me a glass of wine at the table, and I remember it tasted like plums," said Ray Lewis IV. "It smelled nice too. My folks drank it all the time. People acted different when they were high on wine. Some people say it's better now, but I think we've lost something."

Superbrett is the worldwide dominant strain of yeast, developed by the Swedish biofuel industry in 2013. It made no real impact on the energy industry, but within a generation it eliminated what was once a worldwide industry in wine.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Adam Lee interviews W. Blake Gray

At harvest time last year, I ran a contest offering to write a blog post about three vintners who posted the lowest pHs for their grapes. Siduri owner/winemaker Adam Lee was one of the winners and, offered the chance to talk about any subject, he asked if he could turn the tables and interview me.

We met at Boulevard restaurant in San Francisco and, as you can see, we didn't do this interview dry. We also spoke at length about issues in the wine industry, but Adam thought that part was too long for a post, and I gave him editing authority. So here's a twist: this post is all about me, but I didn't write or edit it. Take it away, Adam Lee.

Do you consider yourself a writer first and a wine lover second or a wine lover first?
I would say I would be a writer first. I was a wine lover, but was one of the many fortunate people, like yourself, that managed to turn a hobby and a love into a profession. But writing has always been my profession.

I always wanted to write the “Great American Novel,” but it never has happened. How did writing for you become a career?
I have two Great American Novels somewhere in storage. If only they were actually great. The first one is probably a 75-pointer. I studied psychology in college, but I worked at the school newspaper and my first job out of college was at a newspaper.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Pairing wine with homemade pickles

Pickles present pairing problems. Potential partners prefer pasta, pizza, perhaps pretzels. Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, but where's the pairing tips for the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?

I never found that tongue twister difficult, not like saying "toy boat" 10 times fast. But actually finding a wine to go with pickles, that's another story. Vinegar and hot spice are death to most wines; vinegar can make wines taste thin and acidic, which is why green salads are hard to pair with, and hot spice can make alcohol feel hotter. Many pickles also have sugar, which can make less-sweet wines taste sour.

My friend and former colleague Jonathan Kauffman, now the San Francisco editor of Tasting Table, is making a variety of pickles at home, to his partner's occasional chagrin, as you'll understand if you know the smell of fermenting cabbage. I invited myself over for dinner to see if I could pair wines with his handiwork.

Jonathan made five kinds of pickles, and the longtime restaurant critic has a deft hand because they were very different and I liked them all:

* Fermented brussel sprouts with curry leaf, garlic and fenugreek: the spiciest and most complex

* Simple sauerkraut with dill

* Turnips pickled with vinegar and salt; the most "pickley"

* Carrots buried in red miso for two months: mild and a little sweet

* Fuyu persimmons pickled with ginger and long pepper: Sweet and spicy.

Choosing wines to bring to Jonathan's place was a multi-level challenge. I wanted things I would enjoy drinking, but also didn't want to take a great wine and waste it on an evening when we wouldn't appreciate it.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Bad tasting note of the week

This wine tastes like these! Isn't that helpful?
After I ran a terrible tasting note from the Tampa Bay Times two weeks ago, I got an email from a longtime reader in the retail business. He passed along the tasting note below.

I don't know if I can make "bad tasting note of the week" a regular feature, but as PBS might say, maybe I can with support from readers like you.

I don't want to go all Natalie MacLean and run tasting notes without attribution. No, no: Full credit must be given where it's due, and if the note has a photo of the writer with it like this one, so much the better.

This note makes me feel a little lacking visually. I don't usually bother to describe white wines' color unless they're cloudy, but Gil comes up with "a bright fine citrine-yellow color with a star-bright core." He can see the Spanish sun in the glass!

And just in case you didn't know the other name for Japanese gooseberry, read on.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

6 changes the Baseball Hall of Fame should learn from the Vintners Hall of Fame

I am chairman of the electoral college of the Vintners Hall of Fame. Soon after taking the position in 2007, I helped developed its voting procedures, bylaws, etc. There's probably nobody in America currently more involved with the creation and changing of Hall of Fame standards than I am.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame was a huge inspiration for us. It's easily the most successful and important Hall of Fame in the world. People don't get anywhere near as passionate about the football Hall of Fame or basketball Hall of Fame.

Unfortunately the Baseball Hall of Fame has lost its way. This year, the strongest ballot of the last 75 years went to voters. It included the all-time home run leader, the best pitcher of our generation, the best-hitting catcher ever, an All-American guy with 3000 hits, and more.

Who got in? Nobody was elected. The Veterans Committee put in three obscure guys: A catcher who played before gloves were invented, and an owner and umpire who retired before television was invented. All three have been dead for more than 74 years. It's hard to imagine anyone going to Cooperstown, New York to see them inducted.

One thing I've learned at the VHF is that you can put great candidates in front of a group of voters, but you can't make them choose them. I thought Robert Parker belonged from the beginning but he wasn't elected until last year. Our entire nominating committee thought Eugene Hilgard was the single most important person not in the Hall for several years, but his work came nearly a century ago and voters kept ignoring him. So we created our version of baseball's Veterans Committee and put him in.

And we stopped there. We didn't usher in 30 19th century vintners that nobody today has heard of.

More importantly, we've never stopped inducting deserving candidates from the present. We don't allow individual voters to say, "All today's wines are on steroids. I'm sending in a blank ballot," and undermine other voters' choices.

When our voting procedures have unveiled flaws, we've changed them. The Baseball Hall of Fame just suffered the most flawed election in its history. It's time for it to make changes. This has been done many times in the past and it's necessary before the next ballots go out.

Here are 6 changes the Baseball Hall of Fame should learn from the Vintners Hall of Fame:

1) Don't limit the number of players someone can vote for

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Chefs and winemakers can only be dictators by the will of the people

The current meme that chefs have become dictators started, far as I can tell, with an excellent Pete Wells column for the New York Times last October.* Wells said that a consumer of a tasting menu "may feel as much like a victim as a guest."

* (Thanks to early reader Elin McCoy for pointing out that Frank Bruni wrote about chefs as dictators 6 years ago.)

This week, Corby Kummer got some attention for Vanity Fair with a lengthier article on the same topic titled "Tyranny -- It's What's For Dinner."

Kummer is a good writer, but it's a long whine by a privileged guy who eats for a living about the assignments he has to take.

I nearly published a blog post last year about a dictatorial San Francisco pizza chef. Una Pizza Napoletana owner Anthony Mangieri refuses to take reservations or sell side dishes. He just did an interview with the Chronicle's Paolo Lucchesi in which he said that even though many people have asked him to start selling salads, "I'm not doing it, because it's not the right thing."

Mangieri is a dictator. His restaurant is his kingdom, the same as the chefs Kummer complains about. Charlie Trotter won't start dinners two hours after the reservation. Thomas Keller wants you to stay and eat great food all night. Grant Achatz sells prepaid seatings at his restaurant like theater tickets. Yes, they're all tyrants.

It's easy to see a parallel to certain winemakers, who make you sit on a waiting list and buy wines you don't want in order to eventually get some that you do.

There's also a sort of tyranny in extreme "natural" winemaking: this wine is going to be ungainly because that's what came out of the barrel, and he's not going to fix it, so you'll just have to love it as it is. Winemakers who insist that "organic wines" must be made without sulfites are tyrants.

Tyranny is a good headline word, and I could have been ahead of the curve. So why did I write up a  blog post about Mangieri's pizza dictatorship, and not publish it?

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Napa Valley faces the problem of success

Could the Napa Valley Wine Train ease commuter traffic?
Napa Valley is the only place in the world where anyone can enter the wine game at any level and succeed.

You can be a penniless intern and work your way into a career-making apprenticeship. Or you can be a successful business magnate in any field, overpay for a winery and vineyard and transform yourself into a country gentleman/vintner in a way that's just not possible in Bordeaux or Burgundy. Or anywhere else, really.

Napa Valley is a magnet, the same as Broadway or Hollywood, albeit for people for whom food lights the stars in their eyes. Servers in restaurants have big dreams. Men and women with advanced degrees take entry-level jobs mucking out barrels.

They keep coming because people keep succeeding. Napa Valley survived the economic downturn with far fewer winery bankruptcies than most analysts expected. There are still plenty of jobs there, but not many pay all that well.

Napa Valley also has a similar housing problem to Jerusalem.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Does "All wine mostly taste the same"?

Last week, the 12-week-old website First We Feast stirred up Internet attention with a provocative post titled "20 Things Everyone Thinks About The Food World (But Nobody Will Say)."

Point #10 is "All wine mostly tastes the same." Here it is:

You might think I'm going to spend this post putting down this point, seeing as I write every week about wines that (should) taste as dramatically different as Madeira and Zinfandel. It is one of the five points out of 20* that I think is wrong.

* (For such strong positions, this is a good percentage. How many opinion columnists do you agree with 75% of the time?)

But it's not all that far wrong. Here's why:

Friday, January 4, 2013

When tasting notes are bad

Courtesy Seduction
New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov is becoming famous for opposing tasting notes. On the macro scale I don't agree with him. But I had a moment on Jan. 1 that made me see things his way.

I stopped by Ritual Coffee for a macchiato. I don't know how many of you have access to a shop like Ritual or Four Barrel or Blue Bottle or Sightglass, the leaders of San Francisco's artisan coffee movement. Each imports and roasts its own beans, often from single fincas (the equivalent of single vineyards). Forget Starbucks or Peet's: single-variety, single-finca coffees are where it's at.

I like these shops; they all make great coffee. But I just don't get their tasting notes.

Ritual had a choice of three different types of beans for espresso. The tasting notes were written with authority. One said, "Tastes like blackberry, vanilla and peach galette." Another said, "Tastes like red grapes, boysenberry and plum." I forget the third; I was staring at the words "peach galette."

I have NEVER had a coffee that tastes like peach galette.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Baltimore Rainwater Madeira: Taste what my ancestors drank

Madeira was the preferred wine of the early United States. Not only did it still taste good after spending months in the stuffy hold of an ocean liner -- it actually tasted better.

Look back on menus of fine clubs and wedding parties from the US in the 1700s and 1800s and you'll see Madeira everywhere. Different parts of the country preferred different styles, depending on the climate.

What else could you drink in Lousiana, where the ground was too swampy to build a proper cellar and the heat too oppressive for table wine to survive? You'd want a Madeira with a little sweetness to stand up to the cuisine, but throughout the South, you'd want it lean enough to drink with dinner. In New York, you would have a rich Madeira for after-dinner toasts.

In Baltimore, the preferred style was called "rainwater" because of the lightness and texture. This name has been around for Madeira forever but is one of the few terms not officially defined by the Madeira Institute. The implication is that the barrels of wine mixed with rainwater, diluting them. Today, that's a disaster. Why would anybody want that?

Let me take you back to Baltimore in the summer of 1894.