Thursday, June 27, 2013

"Somm" review: The best wine documentary yet?

Thinking about "Somm," which is probably the best wine documentary yet, I tried to get outside myself. Would I like this movie if I knew nothing about wine?

The question might be moot. "Somm" is a documentary, not a dramedy like "Sideways," and in the US documentaries rarely cross over into the general market.

If you do love wine, "Somm" has all the elements of a terrific movie -- drama, humor, tension, great characters. And director Jason Wise introduces visual excitement into one of the most boring things in the world, watching other people taste, with gimmicks like wine glasses being smashed or shot to mark scene transitions.

"Somm" feels like a sports documentary; it follows the structure of a team working together to overcome an impossible opponent.

The film follows four students as they prepare to take the Master Sommelier exam, arguably the hardest exam in the world. Three of them -- Ian, Brian and Dustin -- study together, with a locker-room mentality. They're teammates, not opponents, but they're also frequently teasing, and guessing wines blind with on-the-fly tasting notes is a daring area where you leave yourself open to feeling foolish. This isn't reality TV; it's surprising that they don't bicker more often.

The first time I hear one of them describe a flavor, not an aroma, as "a freshly opened can of tennis balls," I'm reminded of the supportive environment you need to state such an impression. If I wrote that on this blog, I'd be ruthlessly mocked. MS candidates need friends, not just to show them flash cards with the names of sub-regions or approved grape varieties on the back, but to indulge them in the immersive culture of wine obsession.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Wine Spectator is wrong: adding sugar to California wine should remain illegal

Last week Wine Spectator published a blog post  titled "Why California Winemakers Should Be Allowed to Add Sugar."

The reason: because California wine is not ripe enough. Geez, if we could only get rid of these weak-sister wines under 16% alcohol and get us some real he-man drinkin' bottles!

Writer Ben O'Donnell, an assistant editor, doesn't exactly say that. His point is more nuanced, and I think he expressed it better Friday under the 140-character restriction of Twitter:
"The notion that 'California terroir' is one all-encompassing thing is a fallacy and that's what I pointed out in the article."
O'Donnell also said on Twitter:
"I'm for anything that could help people explore/experiment/develop in these 'frontier' regions."
I have to write this as a tiny voice in opposition to Wine Spectator just in case there becomes a serious move in California to legalize chaptalization (adding sugar to fermenting grapes to raise the alcohol level of wine).

Chaptalization in California is Spectatorization. It's winemaking on PEDs (performance enhancing duplicities). And it's wrong.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Croatian and Slovenian wines: a cross-border tasting

Croatian winemaker Ivica Dobrinčić and family will soon have EU passports
Politically, Croatia and Slovenia are at odds with each other. But wine-wise, they share a lot -- some of which Croatia will have to give up when it joins the European Union on July 1.

Both countries are known mostly for aromatic white wine, but like the nearby Alto Adige region of Italy, they also make reds.

I had the opportunity to taste some of the best of these borderland wines recently at an event organized by importer Blue Danube Wine Company; tasting notes are below.*

The history of Croatia and Slovenia has been intertwined with neighboring Italy and Austria for centuries, as both were often part of the same larger country (Austria-Hungary; Yugoslavia). Grapes in the area sometimes have names in four different languages.

That's a battleground now. Slovenia joined the EU in 2004 and its wineries immediately and successfully petitioned to own the name Teran, a red grape. You'd think this wouldn't be a problem, but EU bureaucrats don't really understand wine. Italians had to stop calling one of their grapes "Tocai Friulano" to avoid a conflict with Hungary's Tokaji dessert wines. Isn't this the same?

Well, no. Italian wineries apparently actually did rename a local grape after the famous Hungarian wine to sell it. In this case, Teran in Slovenia and Croatia is actually the same thing, grown a few kilometers apart. It's like saying the word "banana" can only be used for fruit from one country.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Sexism in the wine industry: Observations from a blog post

Last week I wrote a post asking people how common they think sexism is in the wine industry, and asking for insider stories of sexism that people have actually witnessed.

I got very few of the latter, even though the post was widely read and I opened my blog to anonymous comments, which meant I spent the whole week deleting unrelated crap. (A little inside-blog thing: if you have lots of pageviews and you don't check your comments, bots will place links to weird gibberish sites.)

I ran a very unscientific opinion poll, and while about 30% of respondents believe sexism is common at all levels in the wine industry, about the same number of people think it is not unusually common.

Here are the highlights of the observations I did get:

* Women are underrepresented in management. This is the most serious point.

* Women viticulturists may not always be included in men's discussions of vineyard management, even if that is their job.

* Some male winemakers joke openly about sex with female interns.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Sample Europe's food culture in two hours!

One of our European cuisine experts
I'm here today to announce "Lucky Bread," a great event coming to San Francisco, which will represent everything European: all that great food from the exciting, exotic continent, in just two hours.

At "Lucky Bread," 20 chefs, including 3 who are actually from Europe, will present bite-sized portions of European cuisine. We'll celebrate European ingredients and European flavors.

And of course there will be cocktails! Bartenders will create three cocktails to represent the essence of European taste.

France, Slovakia, Portugal -- it's all one big homogeneous continent, and you'll taste it all on one tiny plastic plate! Just $125 a ticket! Make your reservations now!

(Note: Change "Europe" to "Asia" and this is a real event.)

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

Monday, June 17, 2013

California Chardonnay is completely different now: it's all about citrus fruit

No medal!
My column for Palate Press this month is about my misadventures judging at the California State Fair wine competition, where it will surprise my blog readers to learn I was miserly and stubborn.

The column, all 1456 words of it (that's like 2 columns for the price of one!), is philosophical hand-wringing about the meaning of medals. I didn't have space to address the most interesting trend in wines I tasted:

California Chardonnay is completely different now: it's all about citrus fruit

Remember when California Chardonnay meant oaky, buttery wines that tasted of tropical fruit? There has been a backlash against that style for a few years, but it  seemed like a stream of artisanal wines against a tidal wave of highly rated goo.

Well, the tide has turned. Mainstream California Chardonnay now is lean, with citrus fruit flavors, not butter and toast.

I know this because I tasted dozens of California Chardonnays, many of them submitted by California's largest wine companies: Constellation, Gallo, The Wine Group.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

How common is sexism in the wine industry?

I saw a he-said, he-said argument about sexism in wine media this week and it got me to thinking about the state of sexism in the wine industry.

About 20 years ago, the wine industry was male-dominated at every level. Today, women winemakers are common, and some wineries have advertised specifically looking a woman to take the post. Women general managers are more rare, but they exist.

Women sommeliers were rare as recently as 10 years ago, but don't seem so anymore. One place I don't see a lot of women is in wholesaling, which is the most consistently profitable occupation.

But I don't really know what it's like for women in the wine industry, and I'm curious. So I thought I'd do two things: take a poll, and open this post up, for the next week only, to anonymous comments. I'd like to hear insider stories of sexism that people may have actually witnessed.

On the poll, you can select more than one choice, and you can also write in your own.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Chardonnay is murder: Wine in a noir story

Laura Lippman
Laura Lippman wrote the first short story in the 2006 collection "Baltimore Noir," and Chardonnay is an accessory to murder.

Lippman, who is married to The Wire creator David Simon, has published 11 novels about reporter-turned-detective Tess Monaghan. This story, "Easy as A-B-C," is a one-off not about Monaghan; it's a mere 11 pages in the paperback version.

Our unnamed narrator is a married building contractor who has an affair with a younger woman who buys his dead grandmother's house and hires him to renovate it. After they start getting it on, he begins putting some of his own money into the work. Here we set the tone:
One twilight -- we almost always met at last light, the earliest she could leave work, the latest I could stay away from home -- she brought a bottle of wine to bed after we had finished. She was taking a wine-tasting course over at this restaurant in the old foundry ...

"Nice," I said, although in truth I don't care much for white wine and this was too sweet for my taste.

"Viognier," she said. "Twenty-six dollars a bottle."

"You can buy top-shelf bourbon for that and it lasts a lot longer."

"You can't drink bourbon with dinner," she said with a laugh, as if I had told a joke. "Besides, wine can be an investment. And it's cheaper by the case. I'd like to get into that, but if you're going to do it, you have to do it right, have a special kind of refrigerator, keep it climate controlled."

"Your basement would work."

And that's how I came to build her a wine cellar, at cost.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Individual tastes differ: About 10% of drinkers prefer corked wines

Quality control at Amorim's cork factory in Portugal
The cork industry is always sending me interesting data on how bad screwcaps are for wine. Recently I got an even more interesting study: that some consumers prefer corked wines.

Granted, this study, published in Food Quality and Preference journal,
was commissioned by the cork industry. But I don't doubt it.***(see update below) Peoples' tastes differ, dramatically so. Do you like your neighbors' music? If so, you're lucky, or you live next to radio host Dennis The Menace.

Update: This study was paid for by Hanzell Vineyards, not the cork industry. More details at bottom of post.

What the study was trying to establish is the threshold of TCA, the chemical that causes "cork taint,"* that would cause consumers to notice and reject the wine. A 1995 study estimated that tainted corks cost the wine industry $10 billion, so a data point like that is worth having.

* That's "cork deliciousness" for you 10-percenters

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Grade inflation at a glance: a look at Robert Parker's 1987 Wine Buyer's Guide

Chateau Le Pin: 81 points. Ridge Vineyards Cabernet: 75 points. Heitz Chardonnay: 55 points.

The fascinating thing about flipping through Robert Parker's 1987 Wine Buyer's Guide, which I bought for a song on Ebay, is the way he rated wines all the way from 50 to 100.

The wines he reviewed in 1987 are mainly from the 1981 through '84 vintages, and include the '82 Bordeaux vintage that he loved. His palate preference is already on display, with quotes like this:
"Lanessan produces wine of a big, rich, gutsy style that often lacks finesse but more than compensates for that deficiency with plenty of power and flavor authority."
This is a period when some wineries released flawed wines, something that rarely happens today, and Parker dings those wines with scores in the 50s. That's admirable, part of the good role he played in helping force wineries to make improvements in hygiene.

Those aren't the noticeable scores, though. In today's world, where scores under 85 are rarely published, it's shocking to flip through the book and see so many wines with scores in the 70s, often with no comment at all. He calls 1981 Iron Horse Cabernet "acceptable" and lays a 72 on it. This is the exception, though: most scores under 75 get something like this comment about Gerin Côte-Rôtie: "Both the 1978 (72 points) and 1980 (75 points) exhibit annoyingly high acid levels and sinewy, compact personalities."

I cherry-picked that one to play into what we know about Parker today, though "light" is a frequent complaint about wines he scored in the 70s. It was a legitimate concern in a cooler era with less precise farming, particularly in France, wineries often struggled to get their grapes ripe enough. More common are comments like this:
"The '81 (Léoville-Barton) is good, but not special in this vintage." (78 points)
"Sauvignon Blanc is a winner here (Robert Pecota Winery), and if you should see the 1985, be sure to drink it within the first several years of its life because this is not a type of wine that ages at all." (79 points)
The point is, wines Parker scored in the high 70s back then were wines he probably wouldn't reject at his own dinner table.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Turkey fights for the right to drink alcohol

Better days ahead for Turkey? The seaside at Izmir, a cosmopolitan town near Istanbul
Turks have rioted in the streets for the past few days in an uprising that might have big repercussions for the US.

The cause -- anger at repressive government -- is similar to the Arab Spring uprising we've seen in other Muslim countries. But this is different for a lot of reasons, and one is that the right to drink alcohol was the spark.

Some US media are reporting that protests took off when the Turkish government announced plans to convert a park into a shopping mall. But that wasn't the real beginning. Ten days ago, the socially conservative Turkish government pushed through a bill banning retail alcohol sales between 10 pm and 6 am and also banned alcohol advertising of any kind, and protests began.

This was the last straw for the many social moderates who live in Istanbul. They took to the streets in a protest that we haven't seen the last of yet.

I went to Turkey last year for the European Wine Bloggers' Conference, and stayed on to visit a number of Turkish wineries. I had some interesting off-the-record discussions. Turks with a government license to make and sell wine do not want to be quoted criticizing the government. Some people told me that the reason the EWBC was in Turkey in the first place is that the government wants foreigners to get interested in Turkey's wines so there will be less of them to sell at home.