Monday, December 29, 2014

Korbel winemaker lies on TV about Champagne and sparkling wine

What's the difference between Champagne and sparkling wine? How would you answer that question?

The correct answer is "Champagne is a kind of sparkling wine that comes from the Champagne region in France." But that's not what the head winemaker from Korbel said on the San Francisco Fox affiliate, KTVU, on the morning news on Saturday.

The U.S. government has fought Europe for years for Korbel to have the right to keep calling its sparkling wine "Champagne," so it's not surprising that Paul Ahvenainen says his company's product is something it's not.

What is surprising is that Korbel director of winemaking Paul Ahvenainen pissed all over J, Schramsberg, Gloria Ferrer, Domaine Chandon, Domaine Carneros, Roederer Estate, and every other maker of quality bubbly who follows international law and actually calls their product "sparkling wine."

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Vote for the face of Champagne!

Candidate # 1: Biff Tannen, a great wine name from Back to the Future
The Champagne Bureau is trying to sue an Australian wine educator into bankruptcy.

I was thinking about trying to organize a Champagne boycott this New Year's Eve, but that's no fun to talk about two days before Christmas. So let's have a little fun. There's a poll at the bottom; you can vote for the right face for Champagne!*
Candidate # 2, from Randall Grahm: Brut-o

Why? The Champagne Bureau (CIVC) is suing Jayne Powell, who calls herself "Champagne Jayne," because among her enthusiastic classes and tweets promoting Champagne, she also sometimes mentions other sparkling wines. Really. That's the CIVC's whole case. I thought Champagne producers were classy, but they're like abusive townie boyfriends who don't want her to even look at another wine. Jim Budd has done the best job covering the trial and here's his most recent post on it.

I am a longtime supporter of the Champagne Bureau's fight to keep other sparkling wines from calling themselves "Champagne." That's reasonable, and it's terrible that the U.S. government keeps letting Korbel and Gallo confuse consumers about what Champagne is.

However, there is no way somebody would look at an Australian woman and say, "Wow, so THAT's what Champagne is."

Monday, December 22, 2014

Can a great wine be made with alcohol reduction?

It may be a cliche, but I believe great wine must be made in the vineyard. Saxum's James Berry Vineyard, Paso Robles
ConeTech stirred up the world of California wine detractors when its VP claimed at the World Bulk Wine Exhibition in Amsterdam that it reduces the alcohol of 1/4 of all California Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.

There was a tiny media reaction, at left, and a blogger overreaction to a single tweet, on which I got involved commenting. With all due love and respect to Charlie Olken, I want to explore the topic in greater detail on my own home cyberturf.

First, I'm a realist about the business of wine. If a batch of product needs heroic means of rescue so it can be sold, so be it. Wineries need to make a living like anyone else selling goods. Please don't take anything I'm going to write here as a negation of the previous sentence.

Adam Lee has questioned ConeTech's numbers, and he might be right -- Adam often is -- but that isn't the point. Nobody questions that alcohol reduction is widely used on California wine. The question I want to explore is, why?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Klingon Bloodwine proves it's really hard today to buy bad California wine

Klingon Bloodwine is the coolest gimmick wine I've ever seen.

I'm not a Trekkie. I liked "Star Trek," but am not a big enough fan to have seen Klingon Bloodwine on TV. But still. Much of the wine in supermarkets today is just bulk juice with a catchy name: Middle Sister or Running with Scissors (I love that one). Or Yellow Tail or Little Penguin.

Klingon Bloodwine not only has a name; it has a mythology. It's made from blood. Klingons drink it! MagQa'. (That's "well done!" in Klingon.)

And it's from Paso Robles, which makes all kinds of sense. Klingon Bloodwine is known to be highly intoxicating; so is Paso wine. If I was going to make something to sell as Klingon Bloodwine, and I wanted it to be good, of everywhere in the world, Paso's where I'd look. You want super ripe, rich, inky dark, powerful wine that's still pretty good, and you don't want to pay $75 for it, Paso's your source.

But does Klingon Bloodwine need to be good?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Day Wine Tasted Bad

Last Thursday, as the Pineapple Express storm howled outside our windows, I prepared a comfort food: bacon-cheeseburgers. I had all the ingredients for an oeonophile version: Benton's super smokey bacon, English raw-milk aged cheddar, and grass-fed, grain-finished ground beef. All I needed was the right bottle of wine.

I thought I was in the mood for a comfort wine: a ripe, rich red. I get dozens of this kind of wine as samples but don't have the desire for them often enough. What an opportunity! I opened a Cabernet I'd been wanting to try, and found it short, hollow and unappetizing. Well, not to worry, I had plenty more to choose from. I opened five more red wines, and disliked them all.

This happens, as anyone who tastes wine professionally can tell you. It doesn't matter if they're expensive; sometimes you just don't like the wines. You can get yourself into a quandary if you have to rate them and you admire but dislike them: Zinfandels over 15.5 percent alcohol, for example, do that to me. But that's not what I was opening here. All were wines that, for one reason or another, I expected to like.

Still, no problem, there's always more wine around my home. I opened more bottles.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

10 great books for Christmas gifts

Ask Santa for anything but a share of his cookies
Last year I recommended 9 great, fun to read wine books that weren't necessarily new. This year I'm going to expand the concept past wine books.

I can't compete with the New York Times' best 10 books of the year list because I don't read enough; their editors speed through hundreds of books in a year, while I probably read a couple of dozen. I'm not going to try to compete with Keith Law's 100 best novels of all time, either.

These aren't the 10 best books I've ever read, or my 10 favorite books. They're just 10 great books I really enjoyed. By limiting the ambition of the list, I don't have to include Great Expectations, and I might tip you off to some fun reading you otherwise might have missed.

A History of God  

Author Karen Armstrong is a former Catholic nun who has taught Jewish history to rabbinical students and lectured about Islam to Muslims. This book covers the creation and evolution of the three major Western religions; it's interesting how much they borrow from each other. She shows how all three have been affected by the same internal movements towards extremism, and why this follows from less mystical and more literal readings of the Bible and the Koran. You'll have a better understanding of all three religions, even your own, after reading this.

All She Was Worth

Japan has an interesting tradition of noir detective fiction, very little of which is translated into English. This is one of the best, a 1992 tale of a detective hired to track down his nephew's fiancee, who disappeared after the nephew learned she had a bad credit history. The credit card was relatively new to widespread use in Japan in the 1990s, and the Japanese don't take shame well. But no spoilers here, and if you're intrigued, don't read any longer reviews, just buy it.

Friday, December 5, 2014

What they're drinking on The Flash

I'm always interested in what TV characters drink. Earlier this year, I learned a terrific wine pairing for sashimi from Hannibal Lecter.

"The Flash," on the CW network, hasn't ventured far into gastrophilia, even though we've learned Barry Allen needs to eat constantly because he burns a lot of calories running around Central City at 400 mph.

We've heard them eat at Big Belly Burger (a DC Comics staple, like Quentin Tarantino's Big Kahuna Burger). But the main gastronomic highlight came recently when one of the Flash's support team wrote an equation to estimate how many bugs he consumes if he runs with his mouth open, a concept I'm not sure they have explored in the DC comic.

I haven't seen a lot of wine in The Flash, but I did take this screen grab of a bottle of whiskey.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Wine critic Antonio Galloni has hidden investors

Antonio Galloni
What does it mean if a wine critic has hidden investors? Possibly nothing, but what if those investors are, say, a winery owner or wine importer?

Antonio Galloni was in the news recently when he acquired Steven Tanzer's International Wine Cellar. The move was universally lauded by the wine press (here's my own analysis column), as it gives Galloni a 30-year library of wine reviews from a critic perhaps even more respected than himself. To my knowledge nobody has ever publicly questioned Galloni's independence, or Tanzer's.

However, the money to acquire the IWC had to come from somewhere. Galloni's spokesman would not respond when I asked where his funding was from, and said he was not available for an interview.

It's a shame, because Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) documents aren't really my strong suit, nor that of the two business journalists I asked to look at this one. And I would love for Galloni to explain it from his perspective.

Monday, December 1, 2014

I, The Jury: The Case of the Library Urinator

Juror No. 11, Mr. Gray
I've always wanted to sit on a criminal jury. I think I'd be the perfect juror: skeptical of everyone, willing to consider all possibilities, but not hesitant to convict. Prosecutors always disagree, which is why until last week, though I've been called to serve many times, I never made it to the final 12.

In the case of the People vs. Aton Cole, I finally got my chance to serve as Justice, Personified. I was Juror No. 11, a terrific seat in the San Francisco Superior Court Room 321, because it's right in line with both attorney's desks. I got chills in my spine with the legal tableaux right in front of me: the prosecutor, the defense attorney, the defendant, lined up, looking right next to me, judging the reactions of a potential fellow juror.

Yes, I was in the best seat possible for The Case of the Library Urinator.

Monday, November 24, 2014

9 tips for serving wine with Thanksgiving dinner

Thanksgiving is one of the biggest wine-consumption days of the year, especially for folks who don't often indulge.

Wine columnists usually respond with recommendations of individual wines (here's mine this year for Wine Searcher). But this only helps the oenophile. Most folks just want to pick up a couple bottles while they're at the supermarket buying turkey.

So here's the really important advice about wine with Thanksgiving dinner:

1) Serve a few different wines. People have different tastes. Don't try to please everyone with one bottle.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Could a restaurant charge customers a "bad review" fee?

An English hotel recently charged a couple 100 pounds (about $157) for calling it a "rotten, stinking hovel" on Trip Advisor.

Pressured by the media, the hotel refunded the money. But the idea got me thinking: could a restaurant threaten to do the same?

It's an appealing idea for restaurants bedeviled by Yelp reviews. Most of me -- 99.89% of me -- says, no way, that's a horrible chilling effect.

But it is Yelp, and there are reviews like these, of a few San Francisco restaurants I like:

"They ask you to leave before you finished your food. Very rude! This kind of behavior has never happened to me ever. I can't believe people behave in such a selfish and rude manner. I've been to thousands of restaurants in my life and not once has a restaurant ever ask me to leave before I finished my food. I can tell you the names of thousands of restaurants that will not ask you to leave before you finished eating. Do NOT eat at this restaurant! IT WILL RUIN your night!" -- Fan W. on Terra Cotta Warrior (1 star)

Monday, November 17, 2014

Darth Vader on Wine Spectator's Wines of the Year

I wanted a second opinion on Wine Spectator's 2014 Wines of the Year, so I contacted Darth Vader, a formidable critic and emeritus editor from the magazine. He used The Force to retaste the wines in question.

Wine of the Year (Dow vintage Port 2011), original Wine Spectator review: "Powerful, refined and luscious."

Darth Vader's take: "You are as powerful as the emperor has foreseen."

Wine No. 2 (Mollydooker Carnival of Love McLaren Vale Shiraz 2012), original review: "The finish expands and powers up."

Darth Vader: "You underestimate the power of the Dark Side."

Wine No. 3 (Prats & Symington Chryseia Douro 2011), original review: "Monolithic red, pure and powerful."

Darth Vader: "The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force."

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

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Florida shoplifter snatches vodka: caption contest!

You may want an antibiotic after viewing this viral photo.

The photo has been making the rounds of the Internet. I love a good booze shoplifting story, so instead of doing the sort of thoughtful reporting with in-depth personal interviews you expect from The Gray Report, I spent much of Wednesday afternoon trying to get some details about this woman's of the hooch.

Shoplift-resistant shape
What I know is scant. First off: it's a 750 ml bottle of vodka, not E&J Brandy as many sites are saying. That's comforting if you know the shape of the E&J bottle.

Also, most sites report that she was arrested. This was not the case. The photo is a screen capture from security-camera tape and was only discovered after she was gone from the store.

It was taken in north Florida, either Tallahassee or Jacksonville. The source of the photo would rather leave some ambiguity, as there was no arrest in the case.

I have small hope of learning more. So let's have a New Yorker-style photo caption contest.

1) "Don't worry, son, I've got room for dinner too."

2) "Mom, is that why you sprayed yourself with Vermouth?"

3) "After giving birth to you, $6.99 doesn't go as far as it used to."

Please enter your captions below. Winner gets one used but unopened bottle of Popov!

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

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Good wine list idea: one-word descriptions

We dined last week at TBD, a restaurant in San Francisco's mid-market district, and the wine list has a great concept that other restaurants should consider.

I love the TBD list because of the wines on it, the generously small markups, and especially because of the format.

Most of the wines have simple one- or two-word descriptions. That one word adds a lot.

A longtime complaint of mine about restaurant wine lists is that you have to be a wine expert to use them. Sommeliers order great, obscure wines but don't tell us why we should buy them.

Look at the list. The descriptions aren't complicated. "Leaner Cabernet Franc" or "Riper Cabernet Franc." Do we need much more than that?

The by-the-glass list (shown on the next page) is particularly helpful.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Diner takes off glasses, suckered into $2200 Screaming Eagle ... or was he?

Rule 1: never take off your glasses
It sounds like an urban legend, or a hoax like this one. A diner in an expensive Atlantic City steakhouse asks the waitress to recommend a wine. She brings him a bottle and says it costs "Thirty seven fifty."

The bottle turns out to be Screaming Eagle and he's charged $3750.

According to, this really happened. It's an outrageous story on many levels. Here's the short version:

* Joe Lentini and his wife are at a "business dinner" for 10 people at Bobby Flay Steak at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. We don't know what kind of business, but I assume that if he was this state employee, the site would have reported it. Right?

* Only 3 of the diners want wine. The others order Anchor Steam beer, rum and Coke, and diet Coke.

* Lentini is not the host of the dinner, and is not supposed to be paying, but he wants wine, so the host, unnamed, tells him to order something.

* Lentini tells that he asked the waitress to "recommend something decent because I don't have much experience with wine." UPDATE: Eater reports that the Borgata now says he "asked for the restaurant's best bottle of Cabernet," which would explain a lot.

* The waitress recommends Screaming Eagle 2011. As one would.

* "I didn't have my glasses," Lentini tells "I asked how much and she said, "Thirty-seven fifty."

Monday, November 3, 2014

Terroir fight! Napa vs. Anderson Valley vs. Finger Lakes vs. Santa Barbara

Napa Valley from Smith-Madrone Vineyards on Spring Mountain
A dirty secret of the U.S. wine industry is that among themselves, many sommeliers disparage Napa Valley wines.

They don't want to rip Napa publicly because that would insult the taste of many of their wealthiest customers. But I overhear all the time, "Napa Cabernets don't show any terroir."

Wine & Spirits magazine staged an interesting competition last month in San Francisco. The magazine asked five teams of sommeliers to investigate a type of wine in a region and then present 6 wines that would represent that region's terroir. In other words, the winners would find not just the best wines, but wines that said something about the place.

Here were the regions/wines:

Anderson Valley Pinot Noir
Finger Lakes Riesling
Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Santa Barbara County Chardonnay
Washington Bordeaux blends

Looking at that list ahead of time, I expected Finger Lakes Riesling to win easily, Anderson Valley Pinot to do well, and Napa Valley Cab to get trash-talked by a room full of somms and like-minded writers.

Boy, was I wrong.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

"Sake Confidential" book review: Straight talk about sake

The best sakes tend to come from cold places
Intro to sake books haven't been as successful as intro to wine books, and not only because wine is much more popular.

Sake books tend to get bogged down early in describing how sake is made. It's an important question, but the answer isn't simple, nor does it have much to do with the really key questions about sake, such as How do I buy a good sake? How long does it last on the shelf? Does the region matter?

Also, many people who are interested in sake know something about it already. Very basic intro books won't interest them, but if a sake book is too advanced, the market for it is tiny.

John Gauntner gets around both these problems by writing "Sake Confidential" in a straight-talking, behind-the-scenes style.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Strippers know Champagne

Courtesy Stag and Hen, Amsterdam
The Champagne Bureau was in San Francisco last week for a huge trade tasting. I sipped a bunch of delicious Champagnes and left a happy camper.

I guess they wanted me to write about the uniqueness of Champagne. It's illegal to call sparkling wine made outside the region "Champagne" in 117 countries, but not in the U.S., where an amazing 45% of all wines labeled "Champagne" are actually cynical, cheap California-made swill.

I learned a bunch of interesting stats like that. Champagne has 4% of the grapegrowing land in France but earns 30% of the wine income (Napa is similar). The U.S. (17.9 million bottles) is the third-largest Champagne-consuming nation in the world, behind the UK (35 million) and France (170 million). But we are the world's greatest rosé Champagne market, as 16.2% of the Champagne we drink is pink.

But what you really want to hear about is strippers, right?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

David Ramey Q&A: "Alcohol level is not a political decision"

David and Carla Ramey met at a winemaker dinner
David Ramey has been a major figure in California wine for several decades. After graduating from UC Davis, he did a stint at Château Pétrus in Bordeaux and worked at Matanzas Creek, Chalk Hill, Dominus Estate and Rudd Estate before going out on his own with Ramey Wine Cellars in 2002. I think of him as a Chardonnay specialist, making wines with the generosity of California fruit yet without going overboard. But he has also spent a lot of his career making Cabernet. My wife and I met David and his wife Carla for lunch at Bistro Ralph, their favorite Healdsburg restaurant, and talked over a delicious bottle of 2005 Ramey Hyde Vineyard Carneros Chardonnay.

How did you first get into wine?

I was doing an inter-campus visitation from UC Santa Cruz to UC Berkeley. I rented a room from a woman who had a home in the El Cerrito Hills. She led a salon of international people. We had wine in a room with a spectacular view. I grew up as an only child in a house with two parents who didn't talk much. Dinner was at 6 o'clock and was over in 20 minutes. When I discovered wine could turn dinner into a 3-hour conversation, I was moved.

How did you get into the wine industry?

I was on my way to what I thought was (a job) teaching English for two years in Colombia. I was driving through Mexico. I thought, when I'm done (teaching English), what am I going to do with that? I said to myself, Why not make wine? It makes people happy. It's an aesthetic statement. It's not harmful to the environment. This was 1974. In Santa Cruz we were quite eco-conscious. I broke a piñata in Mexico on Christmas Day. Two weeks later I was back at San Jose State in Chemistry 1-A. It took 4 1/2 years to go from Chemistry 1-A to an MS in enology at UC Davis.

Where did you go from there?

Because I hadn't taught in Colombia, I wanted to work overseas, especially in France, because those were the grapes we worked with in California. It's such an odd twist of fate that in Sonoma County with all the Italian families, we ended up making all these French varieties. I opted for Bordeaux. I wrote 14 letters and got seven replies: six no's and one yes from Christian Moueix. So I went to work for him. After I left Bordeaux I worked at a factory in Australia, Lindeman's, where we made bag-in-a-box "Riesling." There wasn't a drop of Riesling in it. It was 50 percent Sultana and 37 percent Shiraz. They had all that old-vine Shiraz that they didn't know what to do with. They carboned it, they pressed it off as white, and then we charcoaled it. Stripped all the color out.

Monday, October 20, 2014

What soda makers think San Franciscans look like

Proposition E would put a 2 cents per ounce tax on sugary soft drinks if San Francisco voters pass it in November. The American Beverage Association -- mostly Coke, Pepsi and their distributors -- has launched a multimillion-dollar campaign against it.

San Francisco and its hordes of sex-crazed liberal junkies are popular demons for GOP campaigns every two years. Here, we get a look not at the San Franciscan the rest of the country is afraid of, but the image they think we will most relate to: A real San Franciscan, envisioned by a Coke executive in Georgia.

Man, I gotta go buy more lipstick.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.
All my election endorsements are here.

Friday, October 17, 2014

"American Wine Story:" Boring documentary without a plot

Wine doesn't make a great documentary subject. You can't capture the feeling of drinking an amazing wine on film, and in talking about it, you risk sounding like someone describing an orgasm.

That's not what makes "American Wine Story," released this week for sale online, dull. First-time director David Baker exhibits a frequent problem of people trying to chronicle the lives of winemakers: he's too nice, and so are they.

The best films -- the best stories in any medium -- require conflict and strong characters. "American Wine Story" avoids any conflict, and while it's filled with strong, interesting people, it doesn't capture their personalities.

It's a sign of the way the wine industry works that at this point, I feel the need to apologize for this review. I would just ignore the film, as writers usually do about boring wines, if it weren't for the uniformly positive press "American Wine Story" has received to date. Harvey Steiman of Wine Spectator called it "fascinating, gritty and ultimately bittersweet." Gritty? It's all tinkly piano soundtrack and people talking about how much they love wine. If that sounds like a good time, stop reading and go watch it.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Winemakers are paid less than HR managers

"This wine has an excellent bouquet and a long finish. It's a credit to the winery's human resources director."

Who's the most important employee at a winery? You might think it's the winemaker or vineyard manager. But they're not paid like it.

Wine Business Monthly released its annual salary survey in its October issue, and I was struck by how many people are paid more than the winemaker.

Here's a chart of average salaries from U.S. wineries of all sizes:

Monday, October 13, 2014

Endorsements for November 2014 San Francisco election

After a dull June primary in California, November has a lot of interesting decisions, and I'm here to help you make them.

I read the endorsements from the Los Angeles Times, which did a fine job on statewide races, as well as the Sacramento Bee and the San Francisco Chronicle, which was even weaker than usual. This is a problem for local races and ballot initiatives, many of which the Chronicle simply didn't cover. As always, the leftist San Francisco Bay Guardian weekly did the most thorough job.

Bad news update: These were the last endorsements the Guardian will ever do, because the paper was shut down by ownership on Oct. 14. 

I also read the endorsements of the local Democratic, Republican and Green parties, and the profiles listed by candidates on the crappy new Smart Voter site. In some cases (you'll see) it still felt inadequate.

Election endorsements are a tradition at the Gray Report, and I urge other bloggers reading this -- whether your normal topic is food, fashion or feet -- to do them. The more that ordinary people talk about politics, the less extreme and more pragmatic our choices become.

Governor: Jerry Brown

He has done a good job. No reason to change.

Lt. Governor: Gavin Newsom

He hasn't done much, but there isn't much to do in this job. His opponent is the former state Republican Party chairman, a right-winger ordered up from central casting. Thus it's not a hard choice for anyone in either party.

Secretary of State: Pete Peterson

The secretary of state's job is to oversee elections. The LA Times makes a good case for the Republican candidate Peterson, writing, "As executive director of Pepperdine University's Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership, he's spent the last several years training government officials on how to use technology to communicate with the public and how to get citizens to participate in civic decision-making." California hasn't elected a Republican state official since 2006, so the Democrat, termed-out California legislator Alex Padilla, is the favorite.

Monday, September 22, 2014

My wines of August

People who say "you can never be too rich or too thin" have never read Stephen King. I'm here to tell you that you can also have too many wines.

For about a year, I got out of the habit of reviewing wines at home. If you read this blog, you know that wine reviews in a vacuum aren't my raison d'être. I like telling stories, and if I can tell a story about a bottle, I like to do it. I don't really like just posting tasting notes.

However, people don't strike you from their mailing lists for wine samples just because you don't post tasting notes for a while. During my year of not-really-reviewing wines, I probably averaged opening 50 wine samples a month at home, but that was just searching for something to drink. This was not a fast enough pace. By early August, the ocean of wine in the small apartment I share with my wife consumed three wine refrigerators, two closets and much of a hallway. I realized I had to start opening more than 100 bottles a month, just to make headway.

I haven't been very professional with my tasting notes for the last year. I got samples, I opened them, I drank them and maybe I tweeted about them if I loved them. That's how I like to drink wine: I'd rather have one bottle of wine I really love and drink it all the way through. Yet every night I did this, I felt guilty.

In August the guilt got to me, and I decided I needed to start clearing some of my backlog of samples. So I opened more wine and took more tasting notes. And then I had another conundrum: What to do with them? Because the problem is, when I post tasting notes, I'll get more samples. It's like Disney's Fantasia: I'll never keep up.

So with these notes, I send a plea to producers and importers: I'm not looking for more wine samples (unless I ask for a specific story, like this one.)  I'm not organized in how I taste, and I might never open your bottle. It's probably a waste of money to send it to me. I'm posting these this month, but I'm not planning to post any notes next month.

But I don't have the stories of these wines, and they were my favorites. And I do want to tell you some wines I loved, so ...

Peñalolen Casablanca Valley Cabernet Franc 2010 ($18 on Wine Searcher)
14.3% alcohol. Imported by Global Vineyard Importers
Very Franc-y, with fresh herb notes and red plum. Not as lean as a Loire version, but that should make it more appealing to a wider audience without losing the integrity of the variety. With food, this Chilean wine is a real winner: well-balanced, good freshness, and the herb note adds interest. I loved this more the more I drank it, and it was excellent 2 days later. One of my favorite wines of the month, and a great value. 93 points
I was surprised to find the 2009 in the New York Times Wine Club.

Stéphane Aviron Beaujolais-Villages 2012 ($13 on Wine Searcher)
13% alcohol. Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons
There's a mini-story here: I tasted three 2012 Beaujolais-Villages and liked all three, which I don't usually do. So maybe it was a great vintage for entry-level Beaujolais, but I can't say after just three wines. This was my favorite: Fresh red plum flavor with more length and body than some in this category. The savoriness and freshness really shine with food. 91 points.

Louis Jadot Beaujolais-Villages 2012 ($10 on Wine Searcher)
12.5% alcohol. Imported by Kobrand
Nice freshness, good cranberry fruit, lively. An excellent representation of entry-level Beaujolais: it's red, and will go with anything; it's fruity; it's light-bodied but not without substance. Not a lot of complexity, but that's not what one seeks here. Bravo for delivering what the appellation promises. 90 points

Next, the holy Grail, cheap Pinot Noir ...

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Berentzen Wild Cherry Liqueur: Play that funky music, German boys

I'm typing this post from a lowball liquor and packaged food convention where I'm not really supposed to be ... it's a long story. At the next couch, two people are preparing a bid for industrial vacuum-packed rotisserie chicken. There are sooo many bottles of scary-looking hooch designed for 99-cent stores. For "Sandman" readers, it's like walking through the production backstage of an alcoholic's nightmare.

There's nothing here I want to drink other than coffee and water. But back home, I still have half a bottle of Berentzen Wild Cherry Liqueur sent to me as a sample, and this seems the perfect time to write about it, because I can remember the flavor, and that will sustain me.

Berentzen has been around longer than the United States, making liquor in Germany since 1758. The company was in the Berentzen family for more than 200 years before going public in 1994.

The company claims it created a
nightmarenew type of spirit in 1976, when it blended grain spirit with apple juice. If this ended up evolving into the Appletini, they've got a lot to answer for.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Millenials vs. grocery store wines

Courtesy PsyBlog
Last month a wine buyer for a major northern California grocery store chain made this observation at Wines & Vines' packaging seminar.

"Baby boomers are still driving volume. They come in and buy six wines and don't ask about them," said Curtis Mann, wine & spirits buyer for Raley's Family of Fine Stores.

"When a millenial asks a question, it's usually, 'What is the difference between these 4 Italian Pinot Grigios?' The reality is there isn't much difference."
 -- Mann

A baby boomer would say, Meet the new Pinot Grigio; same as the old Pinot Grigio.

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

Monday, September 8, 2014

Wine Spectator, Advocate can now legally sell a 90-point rating

Can Wine Spectator now openly offer higher ratings to wineries that buy advertising -- and threaten lower ones to wineries that don't?

It appears that it can. So can the Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, CellarTracker, and any other site publishing ratings.

For years, some wineries have whispered that such practices might be informally happening, even though there has never been any evidence. Charging $10,000 to bump a wine from 89 to 90 points would be unethical.

However, after a horrible ruling last week by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, such a practice appears to be legal.

The court ruled that Yelp can legally eliminate positive reviews from its site for businesses that don't buy advertising, which would lower their overall ratings. It can also legally move negative reviews higher.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Three Napa Valley wineries where you can play games

The view from the deck at Cade Estate
The best way you can help Napa Valley rebuild from the earthquake is to visit. Tourism can take a hit after a quake, and that impacts a lot of local jobs. More than 95% of Napa wineries, restaurants and hotels are open and they want you to come and spend your money.

Here's a short list of wineries with games:

Cade Estate has backgammon and dominos

Ehlers Estate has a bocce court

B Cellars has croquet

Bonus winery in nearby Sonoma Valley: Hamel Family Wines has Cards Against Humanity and Jenga

A little more detail:

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Why mainstream media always wrongly assumes wine prices will go up

This story is so wrong.
A few days after the Napa earthquake, which I covered extensively for Wine Searcher, I was a guest on a southern California radio program. The host was mainly interested in how wine prices were going to go up.

I explained that Napa makes 4% of the wine in California, and only a part of Napa was affected. I estimated that of its 525 wineries, about 5% lost significant amounts of wine. And the wine they lost was from 2013, the largest vintage in California history. I've written all this before.

But the host kept pushing me to say consumers -- some consumers -- would pay more. What about fans of 2013 California wines? What about collectors?

I'm not alone in getting pushed to say that wine prices would rise after the quake. ABC News did a story. Men's Health did a story. The Washington Post did a story. These three got the story mostly correct.

But some didn't.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Wine shop owner catches Tequila thief with bag of meat

By day, Frank Pagliaro is a mild-mannered wine store owner. But then he goes into the back room, possibly sliding down some sort of pole, and emerges as Batman, Delaware edition.

Gotham City's Batman takes on the Joker and Bane and barely survives. Wilmington's Batman takes on the AssClown and The AssClown's Cousin Julio, and not only does he triumph, he posts video on Youtube.

Last week, one of the denizens of Wilmington's underworld attempted to shoplift a $75 bottle of Tequila, specifically Don Julio 70 Añejo Claro Tequila, from Franks Wine. But with the surveillance equipment in the FrankCave, Frank was able to get a clear look at the culprit and his neck tattoo.

"Love how these guys mark themselves for easier ID," Frank told me by email. "Criminals -- not the smartest bunch." I like to imagine him saying it with Christian Bale's throat infection.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey, Prosecco, Barefoot are hot; Syrah, mainstream beer are not

Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey is the hottest liquor brand in the country, and I'm not talking about the taste. It has added easily the most sales in dollar and volume over the last year, according to Nielsen. Two vodkas -- Tito's and New Amsterdam -- are runners up.

Yesterday, Nielsen's beverage alcohol head Danny Brager gave a presentation in San Diego about what's going on in the U.S. booze market. Here are the bullet points:

* Consumers are trading up in beer, wine and spirits.

* Mainstream beer sales are dropping. Beer classified as "below premium" (I don't know how cheap that means) is still 23.8% of all beer, but down 3.8%. Craft beer is only 7% of the market but it's up 12.2%.

* New items (new brands or weird shit like beer-wine hybrids) are fueling growth of the whole beer and wine categories, which would both actually have negative sales growth if you removed the sales of new items. However, it's possible that new items are just cannibalizing sales of established brands.

* Giant beer producers didn't get that way by being stupid about business. They're introducing a horde of weird new products to capture curious millenials' cash. Angry Orchard, Redd's fruit beers and Bud Light Lime-Rita and its sisters now combine for $1 billion in sales. None of them existed 3 years ago.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Porn star makes wine: an interview from the archives

Going through some old files last week, I found this story that never ran in its intended publication; the editor got cold feet. Never too late for a porn star-makes-wine story. This is the unedited original story from 2007.

“There are two things I have to ask you about: wine and sex,” I tell porn star Savanna Samson in our phone interview. “Which one do you want to talk about first?”

She paused; I imagined her doing that little lip-biting thing women do when they’re faking orgasms (I mean in the movies, of course.) Then she said, “Um, sex?”

Yee-haw! Samson, whose real name is Natalie Oliveros, has just released her first wine, an Italian red called Sogno Uno. That’s how a wine writer gets away with interviewing her.

But honestly, if I want to talk about gentle grape crushing or wild strains of yeast, I can call any of the hundreds of winemakers in the 707 area code. Yet very few of those winemakers can I ask about DP (that’s industry slang for “double penetration”).

“I always said I wouldn’t do more than three guys at once,” Oliveros says. “Then Chi Chi Larue, the director of ‘Savanna Samson, Superstar,’ wanted me to do five guys at once. I said, OK, for you I’ll do it.”

You gotta love that dedication. 
While Oliveros has to struggle to look like she’s enjoying quintuple penetration, she says girl-girl scenes are easier for her than for most porn stars.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The romantic mystery of Charles Shaw wines

Yesterday I answered the question "Why are Trader Joe's wines so cheap?" Today I want to explore why people care.

The most famous Trader Joe's wine is Charles Shaw, once known as Two Buck Chuck, but now $2.49 in most stores. Throughout my wine-writing career, I have been asked about Charles Shaw far more than any other wine. Screaming Eagle is a distant second. I have done stories about Barefoot and Yellow Tail, but I never get asked about them.

The most popular question is, "What do you think of Charles Shaw?" People ask this for a lot of reasons, including validation of their purchase decision. Some ask because they want to expose me as a wine snob.

People ask other questions about Charles Shaw too, like, "Is it consistent?" (answer: There's a lot of variation because they do several batches of each variety per year). Some ask which varietal I would drink if I had to pick one. (In tastings, I've had the best luck with the Shiraz.)

Many ask the question I answered yesterday, "Why is it so cheap?" This question is at the heart of the romantic mystery of Charles Shaw wines. Not only that, this question about Charles Shaw wines is central to wine appreciation for all of us.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Why are Trader Joe's wines so cheap?

Short answer: For the same reason that everything else at Trader Joe's is cheap. They're industrial agricultural products that are efficiently made and distributed.

The Internet got excited last week with the "news" from the Huffington Post that there are dead birds in Trader Joe's wines. The Huffington Post, which doesn't pay writers for most of its stories, exists mostly to prove that liberals are as gullible as conservatives. It got smacked down for running potentially libelous material and took the story off its site.

(Just to clarify: There are most likely no dead birds in Trader Joe's wine. There are, however, thousands of dead insects. More on that below.)

The question of Why are Trader Joe's wines so cheap? is still out there, so I'm going to answer it.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Tasty can of sake rises from the rubble of a tsunami

Suisen brewery was utterly destroyed by an earthquake and tsunami in 2011. Seven employees (out of only 57 total) died.

It was a challenge just to keep going for the 67-year-old brewery. Amazingly, only three years later, not only is Suisen back in business, it's exporting its sake for the first time.

That sake -- called Kibo -- is delicious, cheap, and perfectly packaged in a 180 ml can for about $5.

I wish more sake was sold in cans for the American market. People often compare sake to wine, but it's a brewed product more like beer, and is preserved better in cans than bottles. And, as Suisen president Yasuhiko Konno says, "You can just open it and drink it."

Konno, 68, said he thought about giving up in the disheartening days after his business was washed away. But sake, like wine, is a regional product with the taste of terroir, and Konno's neighbors considered Suisen sake part of their lives.

After the tsunami
"Many people in the Rikuzentakata area told us they want to drink our sake," Konno said by Skype from Japan. "They said, 'You're going to rebuild the kura, right? I want to drink it again.' "

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

If you can't make great wine, tweet

Here are the top 10 wineries Monday on Vin Tank's "Winery Social Index":

1. Four Cousins (South Africa)
2. Barefoot Cellars
3. Wine Sisterhood
4. Biltmore (North Carolina)
5. Castello di Amorosa (
6. Chateau Ste. Michelle
7. South Coast Winery (Temecula)
8. Iron Horse Vineyards
9. Mezzacorona
10. Tarara Winery (Virginia)

The top 10 apparently is calculated using Facebook likes and Twitter followers.

I'm constantly reading boring blog posts about the wine industry and social media. This list is a pretty good demonstration of the value of it.

My readers, for the most part, are wine savvy. How many of these brands would you spend your own money on?

Chateau Ste. Michelle makes great value wines. I might buy an Iron Horse bubbly. The rest of them?

The ratio is the same through the rest of the top 50. There are about 8 of the next 40 that I would spend my own money on, even though many are not expensive wines. I think I'll make fewer enemies today by not revealing which 8. Go look for yourself and come up with your own number.

So apparently wineries' social media may have value for wine sales -- but not so much for wine lovers.

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

Monday, August 4, 2014

Here's a rarity: a simple, useful, elegant wine gadget

Wine Thermals. Mine is plain brown.
There aren't many good wine gadgets. Most are superfluous crap meant to keep the cycle of useless Christmas gifts spinning. Even the ones I like usually end up gathering dust in a cupboard somewhere.

In the few months since I got a Wine Thermal, I've used it every time I had a white wine. I can't say that for any other wine gadget in the house. (I've moved away from fancy corkscrew devices and am using a very basic model.)

It's attractive, effective and extremely low-tech. I like it so much I feel the need to say that nobody is paying me to write this. In fact, it's going to be a welcome surprise for the Montana-based company.

The Wine Thermal is a block of concrete with a wine bottle-shaped hole in it. You store it in the freezer. When it's time to serve a white wine, you put the concrete block on the table, and put the bottle in it. Simple as that.

The Thermal keeps the wine at a steady, cool temperature more effectively than an ice bucket. With an ice bucket, you always have to worry about overchilling, so you're constantly moving the dripping bottle in and out of the ice bath. You can just leave it, dry, in the Thermal. It keeps the bottle cool for at least 90 minutes; I haven't asked longer of it than that. While it does leave a little condensation on the table, it's a whole lot neater than an ice bucket.

It's a simple, elegant device that you can use every day; it gives your dinner table a touch of the trendy urban industrial-restaurant look. When you're done with the wine, you put it back in the freezer.

I was waiting for it to be available on Amazon, so I could reap 4% of the sales from any click-throughs, but two months have passed since I got it and I'm still using it all the time, so what the heck. You have to order it (for $65 plus $5 shipping) directly from the Montana-based company, Angle 33. Here's their website.

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

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Moonshine: The Book

Moonshine is having a moment. It's painful how hip it is. It's even made in Brooklyn now, and the distillery there charges about double what good 12-year-old Scotch costs.

One such modern moonshine producer credits the 2008 financial crisis. "People were really getting back to basics," he said. "Instead of getting a triple infused apple martini at a high-end lounge, they were going to a local pub and buying a Jäger bomb and a beer."

Even more basic is moonshine, which is simply slang for clear, unaged whiskey.

Jaime Joyce's book "Moonshine: A Cultural History of America's Infamous Liquor" comes at a great time: it's either the crest of a movement, or the beginning of a bigger wave. It's an an entertaining history with the crisp pacing you'd expect from an editor at Time Inc. (Joyce's day job).

The urban hipness of moonshine is a huge shift from the entire history of the spirit, which was made for poor people who wanted cheaper hooch than what could be sold after federal tax was collected.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Overwhelmed by trying to open a bottle of Lambrusco

Last week I couldn't figure out how to open a wine bottle.

It has a metal clamp over the cork that doesn't pull or twist off. I went to Twitter for help, but nobody gave me advice.

I searched the Internet, and the best I could find was another writer (the Wine Curmudgeon) who had pried the bottle open with a screwdriver.

The bottle in question was a fine summer wine, a dry Lambrusco, with a name as unnecessarily difficult as its closure. Here it is in full, according to Wine-Searcher: Cleto Chiarli Vigneto Enrico Cialdini Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro Secco. It's from Emilia-Romagna, and it's about $15 a bottle.

Struggling with this bottle made me think about the 19% of U.S. wine drinkers described as Overwhelmed in Constellation Brands' latest consumer survey. My wife is waiting with dinner, and I can't even figure out how to open the bottle.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

What does "manipulation" of wine mean to you?

Does wine really taste like the vineyard?
What does wine most taste like: the vineyard? The soil? The weather? The yeast? The barrels? The additives?

We talked about "manipulation" of wine at the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration -- the perfect varietal for the topic.

And I discovered my palate isn't as purist as I might have thought.

Chardonnay is the greatest white grape in the world, depending on how you feel about Riesling. There aren't any other serious candidates. But wine lovers rarely speak of Chardonnay with the respect it deserves, even though we acknowledge the heights it can reach in Burgundy and Champagne and the Sonoma Coast and elsewhere.

That sense of manipulation is part of the reason. We expect other great grapes -- Pinot Noir and Syrah, for example -- to taste "varietally correct." But we don't have a real sense of what great Chardonnay is supposed to taste like.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Suddenly, more wines contain cobalt

Cobalt. Image courtesy
An increasing number of wines have cobalt in them, according to a member of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. And some even contain lead.

The wine buyer made the statement from the audience Friday at a seminar at the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Symposium in Niagara, Ontario.

The LCBO tests every wine submitted for sale in Ontario for a variety of faults, including residues of pesticides and herbicides. It does not make its results public, and the buyer told me afterward that it cannot, for fear of being sued. He did not name any of the wines containing cobalt or lead, or their country of origin.

But the public comment is provocative, because if anyone has previously reported cobalt being found in wine, I haven't seen it.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A is for Absinthe: Childrens' book for bartenders' kids

My first favorite book was The Blueberry Pie Elf. In some ways it represented the adult I have become, because its titular character was a discriminating eater (or, if you prefer, a pie snob). He was not satisfied by cherry pie or apple pie; he wanted the dark, ripe fruit character that only blueberry pie could deliver. The Blueberry Pie Elf was an unabashed New World pie eater.

The fact that the elf was willing to clean a family's entire kitchen on spec in hopes of maybe getting a blueberry pie in the future, well, actually, freelance writing is kind of like that. Oops, too late for a spoiler alert. Dammit! Now what's left to enjoy when HBO does The Blueberry Pie Elf in 10 parts, preferably with torture and sexposition?

I don't know what HBO would do with Lara Nixon's book "A is for Absinthe." But for parents who work in the booze industry, this book is probably a better gift than the modern classic "Go The Fuck to Sleep." It's not funny, but on the plus side, it is actually designed to be read by your toddler.

Monday, July 14, 2014

You, Sir, Are A Wine Snob! Slap!

I've been called a "wine snob" before, but the intended insult came from a surprising source on Saturday: Eric Levine, the founder of CellarTracker, which is a website where people review and rate wines.

Bizarre, right? I know people love a good Twitter fight, it's like watching an ugly person sing bad karaoke in spangles on Youtube, so let's get right to it.

First, the prologue. I tweeted this on Tuesday:

Just after noon on Saturday, Levine finally got to the item marked "Insult Winesnob Blake Gray" on his to-do list.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Let's Name Names: Restaurants where sommeliers recommend bad wines

"Natural wine" is one of vino's most popular punching bags. Even Newsweek took a shot at it yesterday, with a headline saying it "tastes worse than putrid cider." When a wine story hits Newsweek, you know it's mainstream.

While some of these wines exist, we're not talking only about natural wine anymore. We're talking about, generically, wines we don't like. And the "hipster sommeliers" who recommend them.

Is there a more pejorative word you can print in the newspaper than "hipster?" I've heard people call themselves a punk, redneck, drama queen, bitch, queer, nigg ... I could go on and get booted from Google's search results. But I've never heard anyone describe themselves as a "hipster."

So let's forget the pejoratives and get to the main question:

At which restaurants do sommeliers recommend bad wine?