Friday, March 29, 2013

Is it crossing an ethical line for a critic to make wine?

Wine writers not named Galloni have to struggle to make money; I can tell you that from personal experience. But in order for the public to trust you, you have to draw a line somewhere.

Paul Gregutt raises an ethical question with his new wine brand, Waitsburg Cellars.

Gregutt has reviewed Washington wines for years, for the Seattle Times, Wine Enthusiast and other publications. He continues to be the Enthusiast's main Washington critic, and in fact his venture got an Enthusiastic post from his colleague Steve Heimoff.

Here's the thing: Gregutt's wines are being made by Precept Wines, Washington's second-largest winery.

Wine Enthusiast has known about this situation since last summer, when the deal emerged.

"I'm not going to be reviewing Precept's wines," Gregutt said Thursday. "That would be a clear conflict."

The question is, is it still a conflict to review other Washington wines?

Monday, March 25, 2013

Unknown Washington Syrah tastes better than 100-point wines

Chris Peterson
Chris Peterson's first vintage of Avennia Syrah sat beside a $250 wine from Chapoutier, two 100-point wines from Parker and Spectator, and 4 other wines with better credentials than it Saturday at a panel tasting in Seattle called "Washington vs. the world."

All the Avennia Syrah had going for it was it was the best wine on the table.

Peterson, formerly co-winemaker at DeLille, was lucky to get the grapes for his inaugural vintage from one of Yakima Valley's best growers, Dick Boushey. "I like Chris. He's very serious, and he's very low-key," Boushey says.

That's true. I was one of the presenters, I sat next to Peterson, and he said the least of anyone on stage.

Me, I talked about ratings and value. 2000 Leoville Las Cases got 100 points from Spectator, 98 points from Parker, costs $350 online, and it was a simple dark fruit wine with a short finish. I'm not sure I could pick it out of a lineup of $15 Bordeaux Superieur. One woman in the audience pointed out that the wine was tight and might be delicious in 20 years. OK, but is that what one expects from a 100-point wine: hopes and excuses? I asked for a show of hands from people who thought it was worthy of 100 points: zero.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Thoughts on the Wine Advocate suing Antonio Galloni

The front page of Galloni's new website
The Wine Advocate sued Antonio Galloni in federal court yesterday, accusing him essentially of stealing intellectual property, most of which he created.

The lawsuit alleges:
"After repeatedly ignoring plaintiff's request for certain of the articles and tasting notes that defendants regularly provided, and were owed, to plaintiff, defendant's fraud was revealed when they informed plaintiff they were no longer working for plaintiff and would be retaining the aforementioned articles and tasting notes for their own benefit."
It also alleges:
"As a result of defendants' actions, plaintiff has lost, and will continue to lose, subscribers to its publications for, among others, two main reasons:
a. First, plaintiff has not received from defendants the highly anticipated tasting notes and articles regarding wines that subscribers expect to be in The Wine Advocate. The absence of certain scheduled tasting notes and articles has resulted, and will continue to result, in lost subscribers.
b. Second, as a result of defendants' improper use of plaintiff's confidential subscriber information, defendants have been raiding plaintiff's subscribers and directing them away from plaintiff's publication and toward defendants' website."
I'm not a lawyer, so I can't say whether the suit has merit. But it does raise a few interesting issues:

* When I interviewed Galloni earlier this year, he said more than once that the business structure of the Wine Advocate was such that he and Neal Martin worked there as independent contractors. The quotes didn't make the final article -- Galloni had a lot of interesting things to say, and that didn't seem as significant then. But it will be the center of his defense. Moreover, he won't be saying it again anytime soon as his lawyers will tell him not to talk to the media.

* The crux of the suit is apparently Galloni's unpublished tasting report of Sonoma County wines, which he started working on while at The Advocate. A note on Galloni's site reads:

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

I'm big in Japan

Here comes the media
I'm big in Japan. I've been on national TV, and in the nation's leading newspaper, but really I'm just a fifth wheel.

I spent a week tagging along with four US master sommeliers who decided to visit sake breweries: 10 in 8 days. They came for their education. I came because I love being the least knowledgeable drinker in the room.

Then somebody alerted the media. Instead of gathering the story, suddenly I was being introduced to TV cameras in front of a drunken banquet full of red-faced sake fans as "the story king."

It started with one reporter from a small local paper who came to see us tour Hakkaisan brewery, which is in a remote mountain village in Niigata prefecture called Uonoma, with snowdrifts five feet high beside every road.

There's probably not a lot of news in Uonoma other than the occasional person freezing to death if they don't pay the heating bill.

Monday, March 18, 2013

I drank corked wine -- and enjoyed it

Here's the image: a bottle of wine is served to a connoisseur. He pokes his prominent proboscis in it, frowns, summons the sommelier. "This wine is corked," he proclaims. The somm snaps her fingers and minions whisk the offensive bottle away, bowing as they exit.

Here's what actually happened last week, when I was served a corked bottle of Boutari Moschofilero 2012 at a taverna in Thessaloniki, Greece:

I drank it. I drank 2/3 of a bottle of it.

I didn't stop at 2/3 of a bottle because the taste of TCA had become unbearable. I stopped because I was tired and that was all I could drink.

Why didn't I send it back?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Whole Foods wine buyer Q&A

Whole Foods has become one of the most important retail stores in the nation because it's one of the few stores that can introduce sustainable products to a wide audience.

But its marketing position is a mixed blessing. Whole Foods is a constant target for people who want it to be greener. The chain made the news this week by declaring that it will require all of its suppliers to label any food containing GMOs by 2018, but that came only after pressure from activists. Nobody is similarly pressuring Piggly Wiggly.

When it comes to wine, the question is, what exactly is sustainable? California's statewide standards are self-reported and so loose that they're essentially meaningless.

The situation is complicated by a USDA decision to require that "organic wine" not have any added sulfites, a vital component of winemaking and the source of much misunderstanding.* For most food products, shoppers can just buy organic and forget about it. For wine, they have to learn that "wine made from organically grown grapes" generally is good, while "organic wine" generally is not. That really complicates selling wine at Whole Foods.

* (Sulfites are naturally occurring in wine. Wine spoils without them. And you are not allergic to sulfites.)

I gotta say this for Whole Foods: For a grocery chain, it has an interesting wine selection. Most grocery chains carry nearly all crap: big-production international-style wines with clever names and nothing distinctive beyond the marketing approach. Whole Foods has some of those too, but you can drink better from there than from any of its competitors.

I wanted to know how Whole Foods decides what wines to carry, so I interviewed Joseph Kaulbach, supervisor of the wine and cheese division for Whole Foods' Northern California stores.

What do you see as your mission?

Monday, March 11, 2013

Official wine-tasting style: Face forward, no talking

Cypriot winemaker Marcos Zambartas judges the aroma
What's the best way to judge wine at a competition? The OIV, the France-based international wine thinks it looks like a sadistic grammar school teacher's dream class: Rows of desks, people facing forward, working. No talking, no passing notes, and -- get this -- no facial expressions.

I just spent three days judging wine in Thessaloniki, Greece under this system, which is supposed to be the international standard, though I've never seen it before.

Most American readers will tune out now, because we don't seem to care about wine competitions. But Europeans do care. Many successful wineries here talk about their first medal -- often not even a gold -- as a key moment in their history.

Because competitions are serious business here, the OIV spends time thinking about making them as fair as possible.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Lighter California wines go mainstream

California wine is undergoing a shift from heavy hitters to lighter, lower alcohol wines. You know this because you are by definition the kind of person who reads about wine. The question has always been, how much does the rest of America know, care or support the new quest for balance?

Here's your answer: there's a story in this month's Hemispheres magazine titled "A Little Bit Softer Now: Northern California winemakers tone down their approach."

Here's the first paragraph, which is fully 20% of the story, so hopefully this is still fair use:

DRIVE DOWN THE BYWAYS of the Napa and Sonoma valleys at the right time of year, and you’ll pass vines heavy with glistening grapes just waiting to be turned into the big, tannic, high-alcohol wines—generally cabernets and zinfandels—that have made the region famous. These days, though, you’re also liable to spot a few vines that have been stripped of fruit early. These point up a new movement afoot in Northern California— a burgeoning faction of vintners interested in making more balanced vintages (read: less jammy, sun-ripened and strong).

Hemispheres, the inflight magazine for United Airlines, is about the most mainstream media that an inteligent wine story can be published in.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Americans are drinking more wines by the glass

"I'll have a glass of the Saint-Romain, please."
Americans are apparently drinking more wines by the glass.

Labrador OmniMedia, a company that runs iPad wine lists and keeps all the data from them, released a study last week that shows that 80% of all wine orders at mid-priced restaurants are by-the-glass, and 66% of all wine orders at high-priced restaurants (with average check over $60/person) are by-the-glass.

The company, co-founded by Jordan winery owner John Jordan, has 150 restaurants in 30 states. "Our biggest markets are Texas and Colorado," says CEO Josh Hermsmeyer.

It's not a random cross-section of US dining habits. In addition to the regional limitations, all of the restaurants have iPad wine lists, which must say something about them.

But it is an interesting snapshot of the way diners in forward-thinking restaurants drink now. Ten years ago it was hard to get interesting wines by the glass outside of New York, San Francisco and a few other cities. Now it's increasingly the way people expect to drink.

However, they're not lining up to drink Alvarelhao and Garnaxta Blanca in Denver and Dallas.