Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Loud people in wineries or Wine Trains: A socially dangerous dilemma

The view from the dining car on the Napa Valley Wine Train
I probably shouldn't touch the story of the Napa Valley Wine Train kicking off a group of black women last week after staff warned them about making too much noise.

Who was wrong? It's easy to jump to conclusions, as most of the Internet already has, but to paraphrase Bill James, I wasn't there, and you weren't there either.

It is worth noting that this incident is a problem that most wineries face at tasting rooms: different expectations of what the wine tasting experience should be.

One of the ejected women, Lisa Johnson, perfectly encapsulated the dilemma in this snippet (with an apparent misspelling) from the San Francisco Chronicle story that went viral:
According to Johnson, one of the women in the same car told the group “this isn’t a bar.”

“And we though (sic), um, yes it is,” Johnson said.
There you have two women on the Wine Train, one of whom (Johnson) thinks drinking wine is an occasion to be celebrated. It's a party by definition. And the other (unnamed) thinks drinking wine is  a different activity from drinking beer or vodka tonics. It's an act of reflective appreciation.

Before I go too far into this, I want to point out -- dangerously for my own rep on social media -- that the divide between these two groups may not be so much about race as about gender.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

SF Giants' manager, announcers surprise Jordan winemaker Rob Davis

Jordan winemaker Rob Davis, center, at his surprise party with Mike Krukow, left, and Bruce Bochy
Surprise! When Jordan Winery winemaker Rob Davis came in from the first day of his 40th harvest on Monday, he had a few guests waiting for him, including his friends Bruce Bochy, manager of the San Francisco Giants, and Giants announcers Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper.

Forty harvests for an American winemaker at one winery is exceptional. Paul Draper has been in charge of winemaking at Ridge Vineyards since 1969. Mike Grgich, now 92 years old, will oversee his 40th harvest at Grgich Hills next year. Peter Mondavi, who turns 101 in October, still goes to work at Charles Krug, where he was put in charge of the winemaking in the 1950s.

But it has been a long time since these great men stood over a tank and did a punchdown. Davis, the only winemaker Jordan has ever had, is still fit enough to compete in triathlons at age 61. He was out in a Chardonnay vineyard Monday before sunrise, worked in the winery processing the grapes all morning, and if he knew more than 30 people would be waiting to surprise him, he hid it well.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Why people like to bash the Wine Bloggers Conference

Wine bloggers are a popular group to bash. The tweet above is from the Editor in Chief of the San Francisco Chronicle. She doesn't mention why she thinks "there needs to be a Journalism 101 class for wine bloggers," nor does she think that of bloggers on topics like food, movies, raising kids, autos, politics, ice hockey, beer ... how many things can people blog about? As long as it's not wine, you are OK with the Editor in Chief of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Last week I attended my first U.S. Wine Bloggers Conference. I was invited at the last minute to present, along with Meg Houston Maker, a sequel to the seminar that was most unpopular last year, in which we were supposed to tell bloggers how to write better, whether they want to or not.

The argument some bloggers made last year, and have made for several years, is that they don't want to write "better" according to standards established by print journalism. They want to post fresh, unfiltered thoughts, and they're not interested in learning how to sell articles to magazines or websites. This is a perfectly valid viewpoint for mommy bloggers, but put "wine" in front of "blogger" and the wine community, as well as the journalism community, gets upset.

I did the seminar, because if somebody wants to write better -- I always do -- then discussion of reporting and writing technique with one's peers is the best avenue possible. And there was a wide range of bloggers with different aspirations at the WBC. There was also an army of wine PR people hoping to get bloggers to write about their brands, hopefully tweeting, "Wow, this Cab Franc is delish! #fruity!"

Here's what pisses people off about the Wine Bloggers Conference: It isn't what the people who like to complain about it want it to be.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Sad truth: Wine's aging vessel really matters

Foudres. Courtesy Tablas Creek
In February 2013 Bonny Doon sent me two bottles of wine with one very slight difference, a total geek experiment, that I put in my wine fridge awaiting a day when my palate felt sharp and I felt like playing.

Last week, we ordered some barbecue and, looking for something to drink with it, my eye fell on these wines. They seemed perfect for barbecue, but then I'd have to do the geek experiment I had been putting off. Then I realized, I've been sitting on these for 2 1/2 years waiting for a feeling that's never going to come. Let's open these tonight, taste them side by side and then do the non-geek-experiment thing and drink them with some dry-rub brisket and pork ribs.

The results made me sad, not because I didn't like the wines or the pairing, but because the experiment was successful. And now I have another thing to worry about when ordering wine. Fuck!

The wines were both 2008 Le Cigare Volant red, Bonny Doon's Rhone blend. The only difference between them is that one was cellared in a demi-muid, a 600-liter oak tank about twice the size of an ordinary barrel, and the other in a foudre, a larger oak tank that doesn't have a specified size.

Monday, August 10, 2015

A brief history of wine libel cases

Riedel's threat last week against Ron "Hosemaster" Washam and Tim Atkin will never reach a courtroom. Anyone can hire a lawyer to send a letter threatening action. I've gotten them; they're scary. But they're easy to send; going to court takes a much greater commitment.

That said, in the past some Europeans have been angry enough to go to court, and it has ended up being expensive for the Americans.

Atkin and Riedel announced Saturday that the case was resolved when Atkin added this disclaimer:

In this piece, US-based wine writer Ron Washam pokes fun at Riedel, the wine glass company, a brand that I respect and use personally. This is a piece of satiricial writing. No offence is meant to be caused either to Georg Riedel or to his business. Please note that no interview with Georg Riedel took place in the creation of this article and that all quotes are fictitious and do not represent the personal views or business practices of Georg Riedel or his company. Tim Atkin

I don't know what Georg Riedel was thinking. One would think pursuing legal action in this case might hurt sales. One might also think suing the world's most powerful wine critic over a single nonsense word in a review would backfire. And one would be wrong.

Wine libel cases were more common a century ago, and mainly involved misrepresentation: somebody claimed to be selling a certain brand of Champagne which in fact was a much cheaper wine. Those are criminal cases now.

Here is a brief history of the only three wine libel cases I know of in the postwar era. If you know of more, please tell me in the comments.

Faiveley vs. Parker

In 1993, Robert Parker's annual Wine Buyer's Guide had a very positive 4 1/2 page review of Faiveley's wines from Burgundy. But at the end of the review, Parker wrote, "On the dark side, reports continue to circulate that Faiveley's wines tasted abroad are less rich than those tasted in the cellars -- something I have noticed as well. Ummm ...!"

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Wine for tasting, Coke for lunch. Why?

A glass of wine with your lunch, Mr. Fonzarelli?
Yesterday I had lunch in St. Helena, in the heart of Napa Valley. A couple at the table next to me told the server they are in Napa Valley from New York for 8 days. Why are they here? "Wine tasting, of course," the man said. They are visiting wineries every day.

They had Coca-Cola with lunch. Both of them. A bottle of Coke each, at a place with a reasonable by-the-glass list with selections as cheap as $10. (If that sounds expensive, the burger is $16.) And they were having at least a 2-course meal, with an appetizer and main course.

What is it with people like this?

You're in wine country on vacation, you're there for the wine, you're tasting wine every day, you're having a wine-friendly meal ... what better time to have a glass of wine?

Monday, August 3, 2015

Tasting notes: a silly game that could be fun

Most people are not aware of the battle at the margins of oneophilia over tasting notes. They've seen tasting notes, realize they're inherently silly, and don't care that wine critics less important than Robert Parker don't like the way he uses the language.

A new board game demonstrates that silly tasting notes can also be fun.

The New Yorker skipped into this issue last week with an elegant argument against trying to describe flavors. I'd like to take this opportunity to point out one of my best articles, in which I interviewed linguists about how the words we use to describe wine change our experience of it, and how those words do not translate across cultures.

But nobody is making tasting notes go away. They have escaped oenophilia and are swimming around U.S. culture. Cafes describe coffees as tasting like apricot and elderflower liqueur, and I know exactly how non-wine aficionados feel about wine tasting notes because I have never, ever tasted apricot in a cup of hot coffee.

If you can't eliminate something, best to enjoy it. That's the purpose of Read Between the Wines, a new drinking and overwriting game that, if one can remove one's disapproving frown for an evening, might actually be a good time.