Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Plot twist in winery-retailer spat: Stolpman to visit nearby store

Sometimes in journalism you just run the facts you have, and the rest comes out later.

On Monday I ran a bewildering story about a winery, Stolpman Vineyards, that didn't seem to want its wines promoted at Frank's Wine in Wilmington, Delaware.

It turns out that there was a good reason, one that Peter Stolpman didn't disclose when complaining in a comment that I didn't contact him for the original post.

Stolpman is actually visiting a competing Wilmington wine shop about 1/4 mile away this coming Sunday to promote his wines -- which, though on sale, appear to be more expensive than at Frank's.

Check out this portion of an email newsletter from Moore Brothers Wine Company:

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Bourbon plays a supporting role on Justified

Timothy Olyphant stars as US Marshal Raylan Givens
If you like complex, continuing stories, Justified has joined Breaking Bad and Mad Men at the pinnacle of quality television. All three shows have their signature vices: blue meth on Breaking Bad; trendy cocktails on Mad Men.

Based on an Elmore Leonard story, with all the complex wrong-side-of-the-law characters and relationships he's famous for, Justified is set in Kentucky. So naturally the drink of choice is Bourbon.

It's refreshing to see a TV show treat spirits in an adult way, rather than as the source of juvenile jokes or hand-wringing about abuse.

In one pivotal scene, villain Dickie Bennett and a henchman break into the star's aunt's house and point shotguns at her.
"Aren't you going to offer us a beer?" Bennett says.

Aunt Helen says, "We drink whiskey in this house."
"We definitely see these guys as they see themselves through the Bourbon they drink. It's another piece of the subtle makeup of everything," says Taylor Elmore, a main writer and producer on Justified. "I don't think we'll ever hang a story on (Bourbon). But it's ingrained in the culture, how bootlegging was part of the Harlan County culture. It also informs class. There's a class struggle coming up and Bourbons inform that. It's just such a part of Kentucky."

Elmore said Bourbon choices were more accidental in season one.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Retailer pisses off winery by promoting its wine

Frank's Wine is probably Delaware's best wine shop, in part because of the effort owner Frank Pagliaro makes to offer tastings and events. Frank has personality. Last year he posted this video of a guy stealing a $25 wine from his store on Valentine's Day and ended up getting local media coverage and selling stacks of the wine, which he renamed "Assclown Cab" after the poorly dressed perpetrator.

Last week, a more normal, non-profane promotion -- a simple mixed-case discount -- riled up a tone-deaf California winery so much it threatened to pull its wine from his shelves.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Fifty Shades of the Gray Report

The UPS man trips when delivering me and I fall into his apartment. I had heard about W. Blake Gray, an international man of mystery who seems to have unfathomable riches without ever doing any real work. But seeing him in person is staggering, and I feel shivers down there. He is the most beautiful man in the world -- and did I mention the unfathomable riches? Of course that doesn't matter to me. But his face is cold and cruel.

He says, "Stay away from me. I'm not good for you." I shiver with delight.

I'm just days away from graduation, my official release date, and I've never been tasted. Not many men have tried. I prefer to stay bottled up. I look at myself in the mirror sometimes, and I just see an ordinary, somewhat flat shape, but my closest friend tells me I'm hot. I wear her labels so often that you'd think I don't have any clothes of my own.

There's a static electricity unleashed when Gray touches me. He's so beautiful, so frickin' wealthy, and he also is a trained pilot, a concert pianist and a professional ballroom dancer. Oh, and he's only 25 years old. And he made all his money from scratch and has four dozen Teutonic women working for him, all of whom are Harvard and Oxford graduates whose only dialogue is "Yes, sir." What could a man like him want in me?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Who will be the world's most important wine critic?

For three decades, Robert Parker has been the world's most important wine critic. Now the position is open. Who's going to take it?

I was all set to declare the Robert Parker era over after the back-to-back announcements that he sold the Wine Advocate and the Advocate's most prolific critic, Antonio Galloni, has left the publication to go out on his own.

But Parker isn't willing to go quietly. He said on his bulletin board that he's thinking of making a comeback in California, after giving it over to Galloni for the Advocate.

So now we might see Galloni vs. Parker for the heavyweight title, with Wine Spectator circling around, looking for signs of weakness.

You might ask, will there necessarily be one most-powerful critic? Wouldn't a variety of voices be better?

Friday, February 15, 2013

I thought I knew sake, but I was wrong

Sake brewing in the 1600s. Just the first two steps: polishing and washing rice
I'm sorry. I've been writing about sake for 15 years, and I just realized how little I knew.

Writers do that all the time; some will say bloggers write beyond their knowledge level every day. But I didn't know how much I didn't know.

After spending a week visiting breweries in Japan and talking with master brewers, I feel very humble.

For one thing, I have been tasting sake the wrong way for years.

I've been tasting like a wine writer: making notes on the aroma and forming judgments before putting the sake in my mouth. Plus I almost always spit when taking sake tasting notes.

This is all wrong.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

English translations favor the wrong sakes: Genshu and nigori, over honjozo

Nigori is too sweet for this; genshu is too strong
Americans often order sake by how it can be described in English. Sure, why not? But for three classifications of sake, this isn't leading to the best drinking.

We drink a lot of nigori, the White Zinfandel of sake, in the States, partly because we have a sweet tooth. But there's a marketing reason as well: Nigori is often described on menus as "unfiltered," a word guaranteed to appeal to wine aficionados.

It's at best misleading, usually an outright lie, and unfair to every other sake. Sake that comes from the press is not that cloudy soup of sweet rice you see in nigori bottles: those little chunks of rice are added in afterward.

You never see nigori sake in Tokyo; people here just don't drink it. But it's a top seller in the US and who can blame breweries for making what sells? Drink it because it's sweet, drink it because you like it, but don't kid yourself that it's somehow more natural; in fact, it's more adulterated.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Is there radiation in Japanese sake?

The purity of rice is very important to Japanese consumers
Sake breweries in Japan don't want to talk about radiation, but American drinkers do. A Colorado sommelier told me it was the first question people asked when seeing a sake on the wine pairing list: Is this safe?

I visited 10 breweries and Nanbu Bijin owner Kosuke Kuji was one of the few to address the issue, but he's also a professor at Tokyo Agricultural University.

Kuji buys most of his rice from a local co-op in Iwate prefecture. The location is important: Iwate prefecture is northeast of Fukushima.

Wind flows west to east over Japan, so the great majority of breweries, more than 90%, can shrug off the radiation question. We're more likely to have radioactive particles from Fukushima in California than they are in Kyoto or Fukui or even nearby -- but due west -- Niigata. Sake brewers assume we're smart enough to read a map, but of course we aren't. I asked this question in Yamaguchi prefecture, at the far southwestern end of the main island of Japan, and the brewer laughed at me.

Monday, February 11, 2013

To watch sake being made, good socks are important

Dassai's production manager tries to talk vice-president Kazuhiro Sakurai, right, out of letting me touch the rice
If you want to visit a Japanese sake brewery, be sure to wear attractive socks. You might be able to prevent a hanging.

At every brewery I visited last week, I switched from shoes to slippers to stocking feet to slippers to other slippers. Part of this is culture: the Japanese obsession with the uncleanness of the bottoms of shoes, which are "soto" -- outside -- as opposed to "uchi," inside.

But there's an extra layer of hygiene that you don't see at wineries, where I can wear holey, mismatched socks and nobody will ever know.

Visitors to a sake brewery must wear lab coats and hair nets and wash our hands first with soap and then with alcohol. I thought the precautions were extreme until I asked about the consequences of not following them.

Friday, February 8, 2013

In sake, money brings the elegance of simplicity

Cold winters in Niigata allow long fermentation that leads to a clean, pure sake
In most of the wine and spirits world, money tastes like power. Sake is different: the taste of money, in sake, is often clean and elegant.

The Japanese aesthetic is responsible, and I mean this mostly about food, but not exclusively. Expensive works of Japanese art traditionally are breathtakingly simple. Think about the Zen rock gardens of Kyoto: how we're supposed to feel from looking at three rocks in a field of sand.

Japanese food is the same way. If you really want to drop serious coin on sushi in Tokyo, you don't get 49er rolls -- you get a single piece of pristine fish on a log of vinegared rice. You are to appreciate the cut, the delicacy. The taste should be clean, not complex: simple.

Naturally, the right sake for that kind of food is also clean, simple, pristine. But it's anathema to the wine and spirits world. Expensive spirits generally taste of longer time in oak. And from a sake point of view, I can divide the world's wineries by their goals: power, or complexity.

I can't think of a high-end winery that pursues the goal some Japanese breweries are after, particularly in Niigata.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Nanbu Bijin All Koji sake: agriculture professor makes fascinating new style

Professor Kosuke Kuji coddles his spore-laden rice
Sake isn't like wine because rice isn't like grapes. If you pick ripe grapes into a bucket and leave them alone, they will ferment on their own because they're full of sugar. If you pick rice into a bucket and leave it alone, weeks later you'll still have a bucket of rice.

To make sake, you have to convert the starches in the rice into sugar. Until about 700 AD, Japanese did this by chewing on it and spitting into a pot; they called it "kuchikami" (mouth chew) sake. Then traders brought a specialized mold called "koji" from China, transforming the beverage into the earliest version of something we might recognized today.

With apologies to shiitake mushrooms, koji is the most important fungus in Japan. Different strains of koji produce soy sauce, miso, sake and shochu (liquor).

For sake, brewers carefully prepare their rice for the precious yellow koji spores by polishing it to its core, soaking it and drying it, so it becomes crumbly and permeable. Then they take it into a warm, fungus-friendly room.

Nanbu Bijin owner Kosuke Kuji jokes that shochu makers toss koji spores on their rice like a man throwing bread to feed pigeons. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Sake with non-Japanese food

Yes, this is great with sake -- but so are mashed potatoes
Many Californians first encounter good sake at high-end, non-Japanese restaurants. The French Laundry has used sake on its pairing menu for years.

Sake in these restaurants usually comes early in the meal with a raw fish course. But sake works with the entire menu, and especially well with dishes that are earthy, mushroomy or creamy.

I went to an event for sommeliers in San Francisco intended to prove that. Fifth Floor chef David Barzigan made a five-course menu, and two master sommeliers, David Glancy and Emily Wines, chose one sake for each course in a sake-pairing challenge.

For sommeliers, this is fun. For the average drinker, I'm not so sure. On an airplane last week I watched "Bernie," a true story about a Texas man who murdered his elderly female companion. The prosecutor, trying to show the jury that Bernie was a man of first-class tastes and desires, says, "I'll bet you know the right wine to go with fish." Bernie says, "I don't know, white wine, I guess." The jury sentences him to 50 years.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Sake time at The Gray Report

Karaoke box, Tokyo, 2 a.m.
Welcome to sake fortnight at The Gray Report! See you next month.

Seriously, I'm in Japan and I'm going to blog about sake for the next two weeks. I'm a huge fan of sake, one of the most diverse and interesting drinks in the world. The range of flavors that brewers can coax from rice is amazing.

"When I pour people the first good sake they've ever had, they say, 'Wow! Sake is really great!' They love it," says Yoshihiro Sako, sake specialist at Izakaya Yuzuki in San Francisco.

In the US, sake is hot (not always literally). Sake sales rose 80% in the US last year, albeit from a small base, according to wine industry analyst Jon Fredrikson.

But that heat hasn't spread far from the coasts. K&L Wine Merchants ships sake to 18 states, but sake buyer Melissa Lavrinc Smith says K&L rarely gets sake orders from outside California.

Blogging about sake usually comes at some personal cost. I get about 1/4 the page views, on average, when I blog about sake as when I do about wine. So blogging about sake for two weeks is a good way to lose as many readers as possible.

But what the hell, it's not all about page views. We're in the golden age of sake, and I'd love to see people drink more.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Is a Budweiser/Corona merger really bad for America?

Beer prices already have been rising, before the proposed merger
Much more than wine or spirits, the US beer industry is controlled by a few big brands. Three companies currently control 75% of the market.

That could shrink to two companies if Anheuser Busch InBev's $20 billion purchase of Grupo Modelo is allowed to happen. The US Justice Department filed suit yesterday to try to prevent the purchase for antitrust reasons.

It's interesting that the Justice Department is worried about the price of Bud Light. The Justice Department released a statement saying "competition (between the beer giants) has resulted in lower prices and product innovations that have benefited consumers across the country."

Is that true? Maybe the lower-priced part. Although looking at the chart above, maybe not.