Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Paperboy: An exciting paper bottle filled with boring wine

Packaging is important in any industry, but focus too much on it -- either as a producer or consumer -- and you risk not paying enough attention to the contents.

Truett-Hurst winery this month introduced a fantastic new paper wine bottle, sold only at Safeway grocery stores.

It's beautiful, eye-catching, responsible, revolutionary. I love it. I wish I loved the wine in it. But first things first.

Produced by Green Bottle, the bottle is made from 80% used corrugated cardboard, mostly recycled from industrial uses. It's 85% lighter than a glass bottle, so it requires less fuel to ship. The company claims one cross-country truck of Paperboy wine saves 61 gallons of diesel fuel, meaning a lot less CO2 in the atmosphere.

I love the brand name Paperboy, the logo, even the color scheme, all industrial beige with black logo except for a splashy diamond, red or teal, that announces the type of wine.

The bottle is lined with the same sort of plastic bladder as bag-in-box wines, which is great for a while. I don't know how long it will protect the wine from oxidation on the shelf. Bag-in-box wines are generally good for a little less than a year, which can present a problem if they spend too long  getting to consumers; this limits the utility of foreign bag-in-box wines, because you don't know how long they spent on a ship, clearing customs, and sitting in a warehouse. The fact that Paperboy is going only to Safeway should alleviate this problem; a grocery store should know how to deal with shelf life.

I'd love to see a sell-by date right on the paper bottle.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Wine writer fight! Should you drink American wine on Thanksgiving?

What is Thanksgiving? It's a purely American holiday: created here, and not celebrated anywhere else in the world except Canada and Liberia on different days.

But is it still, as the first one was, a celebration not just of friends and family, but of the edible bounty of the land?

To me the answer has always been Yes, and I always drink American wines on Thanksgiving. Not everyone shares that opinion. I had a Twitter debate with New York Times critic Eric Asimov on this issue yesterday.

I'm going to take a poll, because I'd like to know what you think about the issue. And because I know readers love a juicy wine writer fight, I'm going to show screenshots of the tweets.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Proven fact: California and Oregon Pinot Noir can age gracefully

Wynne Peterson-Nedry of Chehalem in Oregon
One knock on West Coast Pinot Noirs has occasionally been that they won't age as well as Burgundy.

Sommelier-at-large Peter Palmer, organizer of PinotFest, put that myth to rest Saturday with a special tasting of 1999 Pinots Noir to mark the 14th anniversary of the event.

Here's why this tasting of just 20 wines proves the point so emphatically:

* The wines weren't cherry-picked. Wineries that had '99s, brought them. Some were expensive on release, but a couple of the most impressive were not.

* The vintage wasn't cherry-picked. Oregon's 1998 was famous and California's was originally infamous, and that might be fascinating to retaste. But Palmer wanted 1999s to mark an occasion, so '99 it was.

I go to retrospective vertical tastings a lot; I love tasting how the same wine changes over time. But those wines are always cherry-picked. The winemaker decides the '84 is drinking better than the five wines around it, so that's the one he brings. A horizontal tasting like this one is far more warts-and-all.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Fall pledge drive: Contribute to The Gray Report

Hey folks, thanks for reading and enjoying The Gray Report.

I was listening to NPR recently and heard them begging for money, and thought, I've been doing this blog for several years and have never really done a post like this. I put the "virtual tip jar" up on the site last year and quite a few people have contributed. But while I've occasionally nudged, mostly in the comments, I've never done an outright begging for money post.

If NPR can, why not me? Granted, they give you more content. But how good is their content on wine?

In case you weren't aware, writing about wine isn't as lucrative as just about any job you can think of. You can't beat the perks, but we make gym teachers' paychecks look like Wall Street wunderkinds'.

Moreover, if you give NPR, say, $50 (feel free to add zeros), you don't know where that money ends up.

Any money you donate to The Gray Report goes directly to me, for use in paying for health insurance and rent and reporter's notebooks.

The Gray Report needs new shoes (true) and a haircut (true). I miss the stylish salon haircuts I got when I had a fulltime job. (I also miss the hand-on-hip harumph from the stylist. Her: "What can we do about this?" Me: "My head is your canvas. Express yourself. But not too short.") I'm sure my wife and friends miss those hairstyles too, but The Gray Report now patronizes a Salvadoran woman who will do my whole head for $12 with scissors, not the electric buzz-cutter, if I remind her in Spanish. If I have to move downmarket to the $6 place, it's buzzcut all the way.

Your donation can keep The Gray Report's hair longer than 1/8 inch from its embarrassingly lumpy scalp.

So please. Give generously. There is no greater pleasure in life than giving to another. And as NPR would say, The Gray Report is made possible by the support, emotional and financial, of readers like you. Thanks in advance for your kindness.

Here's the donation button; it's Paypal, so it should be safe. I will not see your credit-card info.

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

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

New Ballard Canyon AVA considers $30 minimum retail price for Syrah

Rusack Vineyards sits in the center of Ballard Canyon in Santa Barbara County
This is American Syrah's new hope.

In 1987, Ballard Canyon in eastern Santa Barbara County had only three small vineyards, and was best known for a sweet Chardonnay called "Dr.'s Fun Baby."

It still has only about 560 acres of vines; there's a single vineyard in Monterey County with 15 times as much land planted to grapes.

But Ballard Canyon, the newest American Viticultural Area, is the site of an effort to make not just great Syrah, and not just Syrah with identifiable regional character, but a Syrah in a special package that must, by rule, cost more than $30 a bottle.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Is San Francisco Chronicle Food going away? Some perspective

(What's that trophy? Click here)
Last week the New York Times announced that the San Francisco Chronicle will eliminate its Food section. My personal Internet freaked out: it's another sign of the slide to Armageddon for journalism, etc.

Chronicle managing editor Audrey Cooper quickly issued a denial, saying that while Chronicle Food is moving into a new lifestyle section, possibly called Artisan, AND the staff must give up their own building AND the test kitchen is closing and folks can test recipes if they choose in the employee breakroom, the Chronicle still takes food coverage seriously.

I worked at the Chronicle until 2007, so I have some perspective on this. I don't think anybody in the media is getting the story quite right, and they likely won't from this point, because after leaking the story to the Times, the food staff is afraid of reprisals.

So I'm writing this because I think I can explain what is and isn't happening and why, in a way nobody else is going to until there actually are some layoffs and somebody speaks from inside.

Ms. Cooper (who I don't know), I am writing this from Santa Barbara County. I have deliberately avoided contact with any former colleagues at the Chronicle -- no email, no phone calls, no Facebook even -- and I am not planning to cover this as a news story, today or in the future. So don't fire anybody on my account.

First, I believe both the Times story, and Cooper's denial. They're not in conflict on the facts.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

French wine imports to US: Appearance vs. reality

Ch√Ęteau de Montifaud, Cognac
Which has the greatest sales by both value and volume in the United States: Champagne, Burgundy or Cognac?

All three are close together in volume, not so much in value. But the answer, in 2012, was Cognac, according to statistics from the French trade commission.

Moreover, Americans spend more money on Cognac than all French AOP still wines combined.

Reading the wine and spirits media, that doesn't seem like it could be true. But the numbers are the the numbers.

The value numbers are particularly striking. Cognac sells just 4% more by volume than Champagne in the US and 31% more by volume than Burgundy. But Americans spend 60% more money on Cognac than Champagne, and three times as much money as on Burgundy.

A few other surprises from the numbers:

* Despite ongoing love from writers and sommeliers, Beaujolais sales continue to slide.

* Americans drank less Champagne in 2012 than the year before, but paid more for it.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

I am the world's best wine writer: The hardware's here!

Holding the hardware
If you're the World's Best Wine Writer, you have to tell people yourself.

I emailed executive food editor Michael Bauer of the San Francisco Chronicle, where I used to work, a few weeks ago to congratulate him for winning Best Newspaper Food Coverage for large newspapers. He thanked me and asked, what have you been up to? I said, well, I was just named world's best online wine writer. He said, really, when did that happen?

So what the heck, I'm going to announce it again. Last week, I received the trophy -- my trophy -- for winning the 2013 Roederer Award for Online Wine Columnist/Blogger of the Year, sent by parcel post from London (possibly aboard the QE2.)

It's not like the Stanley Cup, I don't have to give it back. Unfortunately, unlike the Stanley Cup, I haven't figured out how to drink from it, and please hold your suggestions about what the shape appears to make it suited for. It's hardware, I won it, hurray for me.

What I really need is a crown. Or a sash. Yeah, maybe a sash.

It's too late for the photo to appear on my new World's Best Wine Writer business cards, which I'll be handing out willy-nilly, as I ordered 1,000 of them (there was a Columbus Day sale.) You probably think I'm kidding. Next time you see me, go ahead and ask for my business card. See if I'm kidding.

This is the award Natalie MacLean won when she began calling herself the World's Best Wine Writer. Torch, passed. This is a rare instance where someone can take a line from Natalie instead of the other way around.

In theory, I should have the title until somebody else wins the award in 2014. But MacLean used it long after somebody else won. And I'm not going to complain about that, because did I mention I ordered 1,000 business cards?

It's like a Wine Enthusiast rating for a whiskey: if George Dickel, which is non-vintage, gets 92 points, ever, it can and will advertise itself as being a 92-point whiskey forever. Somebody else might win this award in the future, but I'll always have the hardware, and I am decidedly non-vintage.

By now you may be wondering how the heck I won this thing. Here's one column I submitted; here's another. You might like this column or this news story.

Or maybe it was the glasses? Blue is the new red, now that I'm the World's Best Wine Writer.

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

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Naked Wines founder: Winemakers are underpaid, terroir is overpriced

Not THAT Naked Wines. Courtesy clothing-optional Terra Cotta Inn
Naked Wines is an interesting new model for wine sales, combining social interaction, user funding and winemaker worship -- and diminishing the importance of terroir.

I spoke with Naked Wines founder Rowan Gormley earlier this week about US Sen. Charles Schumer's proposal to let the US postal service ship wine. He's for it; so am I. Not only could it give competition to the arrogant, crappy wine delivery service from FedEx and UPS; it could help the struggling USPS generate revenue.

It's more interesting to chat with Gormley about his website's model for selling wine. Naked is kind of like CellarTracker meets Kickstarter.

Every wine is listed by winemaker. Most  wines list the region the grapes come from, but it's not the major selling point.

And Gormley says that's as it should be.

"The wine industry has made a living out of claiming that, 'This exclusive piece of soil and this microclimate makes these unique flavors'," Gormley says. "The truth is that the most famous regions are overpriced, and the least famous regions don't deserve their discounts. If you go to Lodi and you crop down and use the right amount of oak and time, you can produce a stunning wine. But you'll never get $100 for it because it's Lodi."

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Is there any reason a $7 wine is better than a $2.50 wine?

A reader named Aaron asked this question on an older blog post of mine earlier this week. It's a pretty incisive question.

Aaron was curious about Three Wishes, the $2.50 wine at Whole Foods, as well as Charles Shaw, better known as $2.50 Chuck. Why are they so cheap?

Well, I told him, they're made from mechanically farmed and harvested grapes from productive, reliably warm areas like the San Joaquin Valley. The grapes are rarely touched by human hands because, next to land costs, labor is the biggest expense in making supermarket wine.

Isn't that also true for $7 wines?

What do you get for your extra $4.50? A heavier bottle, a nicer label, and a bigger marketing budget. But do you get a better wine?

I used to do a newspaper Bargain Wines column for which I tasted scores of wines under $10. The overwhelming majority of wines I recommended cost right about $10; occasionally $9. Rarely did I recommend a $7 wine. It's only a $2 jump. But it's a big one.

So I put Aaron's question to you, dear readers: Is there any reason a $7 wine is better than a $2.50 wine?

UPDATE: I got this answer on Twitter from Jeff Siegel, aka The Wine Curmudgeon, author of "The Wine Curmudgeon's Guide to Cheap Wine:"

The cost of the glass and cork might take up as much as 70% of the production cost of the $2.50 wine, leaving little leeway for grapes. Bronco Wine Co., which makes $2.50 Chuck, owns its own grapes, so that gives it an advantage over The Wine Group, which makes Three Wishes. Either way, Jeff says a $7 bottle cost gives producers leeway to acquire better grapes, or perhaps more accurately, grapes that aren't as bad.

Thanks Jeff!

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

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Wine and Cognac, not zombies, are the real danger on The Walking Dead

Army medic Bob on The Walking Dead
You wouldn't expect a show on which zombies are stabbed in the head nearly every episode to be a bastion of social conservatism.

But that's just what's up right now on The Walking Dead, and it's significant because it's the  highest-rated TV show with US viewers ages 18-49, amazing considering you have to subscribe to cable, satellite or an online service to get it.

It's a cultural phenomenon that so far hasn't inspired much of the hand-wringing analysis of Breaking Bad, or the shot-by-shot tweets of Mad Men. But those shows, combined, don't equal its audience.

And -- mild SPOILER ALERT -- here's how the program is showing wine and Cognac to be more dangerous than zombies:

Friday, November 1, 2013

Yes, there is and will be a global wine shortage. Here's some perspective on it.

I'm not sure who did a worse job of reporting on Morgan Stanley Australia's report of an upcoming global wine shortage: The mainstream media that initially freaked out, or the wine media that responded, "No there isn't."

I asked Morgan Stanley for the report and they kindly sent it. I read it. I'm not responding emotionally. I just want you to consider the facts.

First of all, a global wine shortage means that there won't be enough wine produced to keep up with worldwide consumption.

It doesn't mean your local wine shop is going to have to ration wine. Nor does it mean prices are going to skyrocket in the US -- although there could be some upward pressure on the bottom of the shelf.

It does mean that poorer countries like Angola and Romania will have a hard time getting wine, because we'll outbid them for it. Sucks for them: Romania drinks more wine, total, than Australia; Angola drinks more wine than New Zealand, and is Portugal's biggest export market. Eventually UK supermarkets will start taking that lowest end wine off Portugal's hands.

In 2012, world wine consumption exceeded world wine production. This was momentous. The OIV says that won't be the case in 2013, despite what appears to be a disastrously small vintage in France, because of big harvests in the southern hemisphere.