Friday, May 31, 2013

Official response to draconian DUI proposal

Last week I promised I would ask three key lobbying organizations for their official response to the NTSB's proposal to create a new nationwide standard of DUI.

The proposed new standard, a BAL of 0.05, is reached by the average woman after just one drink, according to the American Beverage Institute. If adopted, it could put an end to dining out as we currently know it.

The proposal worries me, so I contacted the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers Association, the National Restaurant Association and the Wine Institute. I wanted to know what their official response is.

Apparently for the WSWA and NRA (not that NRA), it is to ignore the question. They never responded.

The Wine Institute sent me an official statement. Here it is:
Wine Institute supports education and the strict enforcement of laws to address drunk driving. The legal threshold of .08 BAC (Blood Alcohol Concentration) was established as a safe level of consumption based on science and law enforcement guidance.  Lowering the legal threshold would effectively criminalize moderate social drinking by responsible adults and divert resources that should be used to target drunk drivers.
I asked a followup question, about the Wine Institute's strategy to fight the proposal, but they didn't respond. Which is fine. That answer is an answer: the official strategy, at this point, is to ignore the NTSB recommendation and hope it goes away.

I'm in favor of that result. So I'm putting this post out here on a Friday, the Internet's lowest readership weekday, and I'm going to leave this issue alone after this, unless/until the threat seems more active. If the expert lobbyists say let's just forget about it ... what were we talking about?

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

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Vienna culinary tourist: Tafelspitz, Sacher Torte and Wiener Schnitzel

I had 36 hours free in Vienna recently, and the last thing I wanted to do was one of those airline-magazine death marches: museum, lunch, shopping, tea, shopping, etc. The weather was brilliant, everyone was outside enjoying it, and the only reason I wanted to go inside was to eat.

Vienna does interesting coffee drinks and is mad for ice cream -- I saw 30 people queuing patiently at one shop -- but those are also passions in San Francisco. I wanted to be a culinary tourist and try the city's three most famous foods: tafelspitz (boiled beef), sacher torte (chocolate cake with apricot jam) and wiener schnitzel (deep fried veal).

The only one I ever tried before was sacher torte. A Viennese person (shouldn't they be called Wieners?) might say I've never tried any of them, as only the Hotel Sacher is legally authorized to sell The Original Sacher Torte. I accepted no imitations on any of the three: I went right to the restaurant most famous for each.

The beef is boiled with root vegetables and served on a warming tray
Plachutta Wollzeile was so packed on a Wednesday night that even at 9 pm there was a wait for a single seat at the counter. I'm not sure how many locals eat there. On my left was a pair of Japanese businessmen; on my right was a Virginia lawyer on an 18-hour layover from the Ukraine. I think he was a spy; when I mentioned that I liked the TV show "The Americans," he said he knew former KGB sleeper agents who had been resettled in the US. He was much more interesting than the Japanese, who were merely talking about how much beef they had eaten. But even after a large Austrian beer and a coma-inducing amount of beef, marrow and fat he wouldn't spill any details; these guys really are well-trained.

Naturally I ordered the Tafelspitz: that's why I was there.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Qupé proves California Roussanne can age

Bob Lindquist likes Syrah and the Dodgers. Both are troubled these days
Qupé winemaker Bob Lindquist has been making Rhone variety wines in Santa Barbara County for 30 years. He was making Syrah when it was on its way up here, and is still making it now that he, like everyone else, can't sell it.

Recently he held a lunch where, in addition to plenty of older vintages, he introduced MaxTap, a blend of Syrah, Grenache, Tempranillo and Mourvedre. It's red, earthy, a little plum. It's not glorious, like his Marsanne or Edna Valley Syrah, but it's OK. I say this not to blast MaxTap, but to illustrate how hard it is to sell Syrah.

"I was in Sacramento yesterday and visiting accounts, and everyone said, I love Syrah, I love your Syrah, but we're having a hard time selling Syrah, so I'd like this MaxTap (for) by-the-glass," Lindquist says.

Roussanne is an even harder sell; at least people know what Syrah is.

"My sales manager says with Roussanne, (sommeliers) say they can't sell it, but they buy a 6-pack to take home for themselves," Lindquist says.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Teaching kids to drink

Oh boy, am I going to catch hell from somebody for this post. But this is an interesting idea I saw in Slovakia I thought I'd pass along.

Slovakia currently drinks twice as much wine as it produces. But per capita consumption isn't great, at 11.9 liters per year, which puts it near the bottom of the European Union. (The US drinks only 9.4 liters per year per capita, but we have 60 times as many people.)

So Hubert, the largest winery in Slovakia, is concerned about its future. Hubert is a 188-year-old sparkling wine specialist that has dominated the market since the Communist era, when it was nationalized. Check out its video history in English; the highlight is women with hammers pounding in corks in the 1970s.

The government in that era was proud to make better sparkling wine than those capitalists in France -- heck, Emperor Franz Joseph said so in 1896 -- and put out a steady stream of propaganda about how Czechoslovakians could celebrate their milestones with the finest wine in the world. For older Slovaks, that's still powerful.

But Communism has been gone for 23 years, and people under 30 don't remember the Hubert campaign. So Hubert, which was purchased by the German wine company Henkell in 2002, has to reach out to the next generation of customers.

Hence, Bambino Party.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Wine, beer and cocktail lovers: Our lifestyle is threatened

Friends, Americans, pursuers of happiness, lend me your ears.

Last week the National Transportation Safety Board recommended forcing states to lower the legal blood-alcohol level for DUI to 0.05.

I'm asking you, all of you, to help in the fight against this. Here's how.

The argument in favor of lowering the limit is strongly emotional: It may save lives. Maybe. But even one life is precious. Blah blah. Lowering the national speed limit to 50 mph would also save lives; so would outlawing Coca-Cola or margarine. Or, dare I say it, handguns.

Still, it's hard, politically, to counter emotional arguments. I haven't figured out how to do so without sounding like a cavalier cad.

But we must. We must learn to transmit the message that drinking wine or beer with dinner, or a cocktail before, is a part of a healthy, adult lifestyle; one of the gifts given to us by God; a part of civilization as long as there has been civilization. We need a way to say this succinctly, sympathetically and effectively or we will be beaten.

As a country, the US -- where 1/3 of adults report that they never drink alcohol -- is uniquely susceptible to moral-sounding laws that are terrible ideas.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Note to wineries: Label alcohol percentage accurately

Wine labels in the US are allowed to be wrong about the alcohol percentage by up to 1.5%. There used to be a solid legal reason for this. But the government has adjusted the law, and it's time for the wine industry to adjust as well

Currently wines under 14% are allowed to be mislabeled by up to 1.5%, while wines over 14% alcohol can be mislabeled by up to 1%. This means a wine labeled at 12.5% alcohol can be anywhere between 11% and 14%, while a wine labeled at 14.9% alcohol can be anywhere between 14% and 15.9%.

This is why so many wines are labeled at 12.5% and 14.9%. It's a hedge, and until recently it was a reasonable one. The federal agency responsible for approving wine labels, the TTB, previously made it difficult for wineries to make any changes to labels without going through the time-consuming, unpredictable approval process again.

But now the TTB has had three years of staff reductions and has simplified its approval process. Wineries can change a lot of things on the label without new approval being required -- including alcohol percentage. Wine label alcohol percentages can go over or under the 14% dividing line without a new approval.

There's just no excuse anymore to be so inaccurate.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Re: Wine tasting is bullshit

Two of my non-enophile friends forwarded me the blog post "Wine tasting is bullshit. Here's Why," that's making the rounds of social media. Both of them apparently expected me to respond in some way.

Sigh. OK.

Let me explain it in terms anyone can understand.

Wine is food. People have different opinions about food.

Just because somebody is an expert doesn't mean you will like the same food they do. Some people think the Big Mac is the apex of cuisine, and would happily eat one every meal. A restaurant critic could praise pristine sushi or spicy curry, but that wouldn't mean the Big Mac fan would like it.

If you want to say wine tasting is bullshit, it's only true if all criticism is bullshit. Just because a movie critic or music critic likes something doesn't mean you will. Movie critics hate plenty of popular films, just like restaurant critics won't praise Big Macs and wine critics don't drink Charles Shaw.

I can nitpick the exaggerations of Robert T. Gonzalez' post, and they start early. The ridiculous wine review he quotes in the graphic -- "Overall character is that of a sex-loaded scarlet ..." -- is apocryphal.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

How to make a boring wine documentary in 9 easy steps

A while ago I watched Terry Theise's film "Leading Between the Vines," a 58-minute documentary about some of the German wineries whose products he imports. Even at mid-day, I needed three breaks and a triple espresso to make it to the finish.

Theise got a lot of positive attention for his book "Reading Between the Wines," passionate ramblings about his desire to "remystify" wine. I like the wines Theise imports, but was not a fan of the book so it stands to reason that I would find the film difficult.

That said, what I didn't like about the film applies to most wine documentaries. There seems to be a template for wine documentaries, and it's obviously not an effective one because other than "Mondovino" -- which was very different from most -- no wine documentary has ever stayed in the public mind for more than a minute. (In the case of "Wine From Here," that's a shame.)

Here are the steps to make sure that your wine documentary is boring and forgotten like its predecessors:

1) Play insipid soundtrack music

When I started doing a weekly wine podcast for the San Francisco Chronicle, the producer added some banal piano-and-strings crap. I asked why he chose it, and he said because it was the kind of music he'd heard on wine shows on TV.

2) Talk a lot about dirt

A wine PR guy I know likes to say "Nobody ever walked into a wine shop and said, 'I feel like drinking something grown on calcareous soil'." Yes, the dirt under this vineyard is different from the dirt under that nearby vineyard. Fascinating! I'll bet that's going to affect the taste of the wine. I'm so on the edge of my seat.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The world's stupidest winery design

I've seen a low-ceilinged winery in Italy that's lit by candlelight, where the barrels must be moved by hand, but it's 500 years old. I've seen wineries that are little more than empty spaces in airline hangars, without air conditioning or even sufficient electrical power to run it. But those are used by people either inheriting family property, counting their pennies, or both.

The stupidest winery design in the world is being built in the 21st century by a guy with lots of money. And he's a building developer by trade. So there's no excuse.

The winery is Narbona, in western Uruguay. It's owned by Argentine developer Eduardo Canton. The wines aren't bad, despite the presence of Michel Rolland* as a consultant.

* Side note: Rolland told a Uruguayan newspaper earlier this year, "People have the right to drink the wines they want, even if they're shit."

Anyway, Rolland may be consulting on the wines, but he's too smart to have anything to do with the winery design. The on-site winemaker, Maria Valeria Chiola, is smart enough not to criticize it directly, but does say an elevator would make her job easier.

Here's the problem: The building is two stories high, but the top floor, at ground level, doesn't extend all the way across the building. In fact, not a single walkway extends all the way across the building.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Weird new spirits: green sparkling wine, prison liquor and Vodquila

I just spent three days at the Wine & Spirits Wholesaler Association convention in Orlando, Florida, where I was a judge for their wine competition. I got an immediate hint at what I was in for when the first flight of wines arrived. See that second glass from right? The photo is unretouched: that's what it looked like.

How to judge it? It was the best green sparkling "wine" I've ever had, though after the competition I learned it's not wine, it's Zider, presumably made from zapples, maybe with added zugar. We gave it a silver medal, and you could argue that we were penurious, as it was the best of its class.

Wine is only a small part of the WSWA convention, though, as some of the forlorn-looking foreign wine producers learned. Spirits are what people there care most about, and particularly new products, which are driving most of the growth of the industry.

Producers pay thousands of dollars to attend, rent hospitality suites at the Ritz-Carlton -- that's not cheap -- and hire hot young women to walk the halls in as little fabric as possible, promoting their brands. It's hard not to be impressed by the endless parade of babes; I wondered often where they find them all, and if the Orlando area, in marketing mouse ears, is missing its true selling point(s).

Vodquila was actually a 19-year-old girl's class project.
This will not surprise you: Almost all wine and spirits distributors are men, mostly middle-aged, mostly wearing dark suits even on 93-degree Orlando days, although the outside temperature doesn't matter if you never leave the Ritz-Carlton. The WSWA convention has, literally, unlimited booze. That said, I'm not sure I saw anybody drunk -- these people are professionals. But still: give a man even a little booze, and a buxom woman's smile becomes even brighter.

If a booth was peddling aged Calvados or wines made from Portuguese native grape varieties, the spokesman was most likely an older man in a checked suit. But if the product was called something like Booze Cupz, you could count on two women in swimsuits and high heels handing out sample cups. (Lots of weird product photos after the jump.)

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

How to get 90 points for your Cabernet in Wine Spectator

Rich, creamy mocha: 92 points!
Flipping through the current (May 31) issue of Wine Spectator, I noticed a trend in the rating of California Cabernet Sauvignon and blends by Mr. James Laube: the ones he likes taste like "mocha."

He reviewed 29 Cabs in the issue. He gave no scores of 90 or 91. Everything was either 92 or above (salesmen's manna) or 89 or below (discount store, here we come).

Here's the breakdown:

Wines mentioning "mocha" in the tasting notes:

95 points: 1/1
94 points: 4/6
93 points: 4/5
92 points: 2/4 (including "mocha-laced oak;" also "rich, creamy mocha and vanilla-laced oak")

89 points: 1/4 (not counting "melted chocolate at the center")
88 points: 1/8 (and that one has "subtle mocha." I guess it's too subtle.)
87 points: 0/1

Above 90 points: 11/16
Below 90 points: 2/13

In sum, if you want a good score on a Cabernet from Wine Spectator, it's best to stop by Starbucks on your way to submitting the sample.

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