Thursday, June 25, 2015

Vermouth the book: not as tasty as Vermouth the wine

Vermouth is the most misunderstood, and underrated, wine in the U.S. Many people don't realize it actually is wine, which means they don't treat it that way.

I'm going to recommend a very good book about Vermouth that will teach you a lot. But it's not the new one to your right.

Adam Ford writes in the introduction to his new book "Vermouth" that on a first date at a Manhattan speakeasy, his date ordered a glass of chilled sweet vermouth.

"Who orders vermouth? I thought, and was immediately drawn in by the mystery ... I had never tasted vermouth, nor was I interested," Ford writes. "I thought I looked cool pouring a dash into a martini glass and then dumping it out."

That drink changed Ford's life completely -- and he didn't even taste it. He ended up marrying the woman, and now he makes vermouth for a living. And you thought you've had powerful cocktails.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Rosé: now the official drink of entitled assholes

This guy guzzles rosé. Courtesy Elizabeth Lippman/New York Post
Ten years ago, you couldn't get American men to drink rosé. Wine and food writers certainly tried. We'd write about how food-friendly it is, and how it's great when you want a red wine but hot weather makes drinking reds unpleasant. Didn't work; men wouldn't touch it.

I don't know what turned around rosé's fortunes in the U.S. A lot of marketers are selling theories, because rosé is now one of the trendiest drinks, especially on the East Coast, where people want to be seen drinking the proper thing. Maybe it was Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's rosé. Maybe it was an echo of a trend in France, where rosé was never unpopular, but is now bigger than ever. Who knows.

However it happened, in less than a decade rosé has gone from an old person's porch quaff to the official drink of entitled assholes.

Check out this story from the New York Post. An executive of the clothing company J. Crew laid off members of his team, then went out to parrrrrty. He and three coworkers who were not among the 175 laid off sent out Instagram photos of their dopey-faced good times with hashtags including #gonegirl. How fun would it be to see those in your feed if you just lost your job? Not as much fun as that guy in the photo to the right had sending them.

Corporate America has no shortage of entitled assholes; arguably they are one of its top products. But what do you generally imagine these assholes drinking? Light beer? Vodka and tonic? Cab from a 5-pound bottle?

I can't get over this phrase from the story: "The rosé-guzzling gang also included retail men’s merchandiser Andrew Ruth and J.Crew employee Julie Stamos."

Usually we don't notice that society has changed until after it happens. That guy in the photo, fondling the pink slip in his pocket for an underpaid employee whose work he took credit for? That's a rosé drinker now.

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

(P.S.: Yes, I too like rosé.)

Monday, June 22, 2015

Idaho wines: The 2015 update

Bee expert and vintner Ron Bitner in Idaho's Sunnyslope region
In 2012 I went to Idaho, visited a bunch of wineries and wrote a comprehensive story for Palate Press. I am bullish on Idaho, and I am not alone: wine climatologist Greg Jones says it's one of the regions he expects to benefit most from global warming.

There's little inherent reason the wines here can't be as good as those across the state line in Washington. What has held Idaho back is culture and history. This isn't a state where everybody listens to scientists.

After a period of rapid growth for the Idaho wine industry, there's a bit of a breather right now. While Idaho has 51 wineries, there are actually fewer acres of vines -- about 1300 -- planted in the state than 3 years ago. There are 26 counties in California with more vines than that. Monterey County, to name just one, has 35 times as many planted acres as the state of Idaho.

For Idaho, a little winnowing is not necessarily a bad thing. A lot of older vineyards in Idaho were planted by farmers as an additional crop and weren't being taken seriously. Any new plantings probably will be.

Recently I got a case of 12 wines from the Idaho Wine Commission. A dozen wines seems like a lot, but it's not really: on my visit to Idaho I tasted more than 75. A little inside baseball: I frequently get emails from PR people who say, "Would you like to write about (wine region)? I can send you 4 wines." Some bloggers do it, but I never feel like I have enough context. Here, I'm just going to write about the wines I received, but at least I have the background of having been there. Can't wait until my next visit.

We had dinner with these wines, twice, and it really affected my ratings of them. Imagine if Robert Parker did that.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

How good is American sake? The 2015 update

Great sake is still made by hand
Good Japanese sake is still significantly better than the best U.S. sake. There, I just saved you reading a bunch of tasting notes.*

* Though that said, people often ask me to run tasting notes of wines I don't like. Here's your chance!

It's important to test that supposition periodically. I'm a patriot. One day perhaps I'll write, "There's a U.S. sake that's right up there with good Japanese sake!" When I do, I'll use that exclamation point. But that day still seems far off.

It's a shame, with an estimated 75% of the sake sold in the U.S. being made here, that many Americans have never tasted a great sake. And it turns out it doesn't help to buy a sake made in Japan specifically for a label-savvy U.S. company.

The kind folks at SakéOne in Oregon sent me their lineup of domestically made sakes, not the ones infused with raspberry or coconut lemongrass, which I'm sure are big sellers, but the sake-flavored sakes. They should know good sake because they also import a couple of pretty good brands, Yoshinogawa and Hakutsuru.

I also got a new product called Hiro from a New York importer that is having it made for them in Niigata, one of the best sake prefectures in Japan. The bottle looks terrific, I love the name, and there's no reason it shouldn't be delicious, right? Well, other than this, which is the way it's being marketed:

That's not cheap! And do you ever see wine (also gluten-free and usually 15% alcohol or less) marketed that way? On the box the Hiro bottle comes in, it gives a third option: on the rocks. Sure, you can drink a $40 wine cold, hot or on the rocks, but ...

Nowhere in the PR email does it say Hiro is delicious by itself. Granted, PR bullshit is PR bullshit, but when the only good thing you have to say about your brand is that it's lower in alcohol than vodka and you can successfully hide its flavor in a cocktail (the first suggestion involved pineapple puree, which I know I keep in the fridge in case my Chardonnay isn't tasty), then you should be very afraid.

Well, I try to keep an open mind. With my wife, who is from the Land of the Rising Sun, I tasted all the Momokawa sakes and both Hiros. Here are the notes.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Napa Cabs finally cross the $1000 a bottle line

America, Fuck Yeah! Screaming Eagle figure courtesy CornboyMayse
Last year I wrote a story for Wine Searcher with the headline, "How Long Before Napa Cabs Top $1000 A Bottle?" Napa wines regularly sell for more than that at auction; it seemed like a matter of time before somebody charged $1000 for a regular current release.

Well, it turns out that without anybody really commenting, Screaming Eagle crossed the line last year, and in a big way.

The 2012 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon, released last October, was priced at $1500, according to The Wine Advocate. The 2013 Screaming Eagle has the same reported price.

I have to say "according to The Wine Advocate" because Screaming Eagle doesn't list the price on its website. But it's not surprising. For one thing, the 2010 Screaming Eagle -- the vintage I asked the winery about when I wrote the story last year -- was priced at $850, so $1000 wasn't that big a leap. Of course, $1500 is.

UPDATED UPDATE: Ghost Horse Vineyards apparently beat Screaming Eagle to the $1000 line several vintages ago, and its top wine is listed on its website at $3500!

Ghost Horse wines are so limited in production, even compared to Screaming Eagle, that I thought the website was a prank, somehow related to Bad Horse, the leader of the Evil League of Evil. But I drove by the winery this week and held them in my hands. They have a Coravin, but wouldn't let me taste without paying $250, so these wines won't get their own post. But I did take a photo (at left), no charge.

UPDATE 2: Mailing list members could buy 2012 Screaming Eagle at $850. But Screaming Eagle also sells some of its wine retail, and $1500 was the suggested retail price. None of the retailers chose to sell it that cheaply, which leads nicely back into your regularly scheduled blog post.

However, Screaming Eagle sells for much more on the secondary market than it does to its mailing list. I couldn't find a single bottle of any vintage for less than $1800 Saturday on Wine-Searcher (not counting auctions). The 2012 is already selling for an average of $2569; the average price for the 2010 is $3017.

I know haters gonna hate this statement, but I don't blame Screaming Eagle for trying to take a larger share of the money that people are already paying for its wine.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Japan moves to protect "sake" -- but there's a catch

The best "sake" is made by hand in Japan
Like Champagne, Tequila and many other regional products, Japan's government is planning to protect the name of its national beverage, sake.

In theory, members of the World Trade Organization -- this is just about every country -- would have to abide and not allow businesses to use the protected name for anything other than a beverage brewed in Japan with Japanese rice.

You can see why Japan's Finance Ministry would want to do this. Sake sales are rising sharply in the U.S., but breweries in Japan aren't the main beneficiaries, as more than 75% of the sake we buy is produced here (albeit almost entirely by Japanese-owned companies.) And purely on an aesthetic level, the best sakes made here don't rise to the quality of good sakes from Japan. "Gallo Hearty Burgundy" -- not a bad drink, but, well, you know -- is a pretty good analogy for U.S.-made sake.

But there's a big catch. In Japan, sake is called "Nihonshu," which literally means "Japan liquor." It's not clear to me whether the term "sake" by itself would be affected.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

"Give me your most expensive bottle"

I was working on two magazine stories last month, about Bourbon and sake, and heard the same comment about both: people often walk into a store or restaurant and say, "Give me your most expensive bottle."

For these drinks, the popularity of the very high end is a recent development. Bourbon was out of fashion until about a decade ago. Japanese sake producers worked for generations, centuries, with humility. Twenty years ago it was hard to find a sake that cost more than $25.

This trend doesn't have all that much to do with Bourbon or sake. The "most expensive bottle" customer" originated in the wine world and has spread to all alcoholic beverages: Tequila, beer, you name it.

Mainly it's the return of conspicuous consumption, combined with an absence of connoisseurship. But I don't want to indulge in reverse snobbery here.

Most people simply don't have the time to study wine or sake or Scotch, much less all of the above. Sure, there's some wealth flaunting. But if you want to be assured of a good drink, it's not a terrible buying strategy. I remember going to a crab shack in Baltimore with a short wine list: five supermarket wines under $40 a bottle, and Dom Perignon at $300. That's an awful markup, but it was also easily the best wine on the list.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

What's the best wine? Ask your cat

Tablas Creek is good wine! Smart kitty
Winery cats can tell you which barrel contains the best wine.

This wine lore comes from Spain; I heard it from a longtime producer in Utiel-Requena.

In winter, cats seek warm places in the winery for a nap. If a winery ferments its wine in barrels, the wine that ferments the slowest will eventually give the richest, most complex flavor. This barrel will be warm in December, maybe even into January, after the others have finished fermentation.

Therefore, the best barrel of wine is the one where you find the cat napping.

Of course, this wisdom of the 19th century works only at old-style wineries using native yeast. Though I love the idea of Kendall-Jackson employing cheetahs to sniff around its giant stainless steel tanks of Chardonnay, you can't really scale up feline wine technology.

Once you start dumping baggies of yeast into the wine, there's no room for cats.

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