Thursday, October 29, 2015

Great wine list idea that works even if the sommelier on duty is an idiot

Harvest Table restaurant in St. Helena has one of the more interesting ideas for a wine list that I've seen.

Not only that, it was good enough to get me a good wine on a night when I had an absolutely terrible sommelier.

Wines from Napa Valley are listed by name. But all of the wines that aren't from Napa Valley -- and there are plenty -- are only described.

I've included parts of the list so you can see what I mean. The descriptions vary: sometimes they're about the producer, sometimes about the character of the wine, and sometimes both. (To be clear, the price is on the right. I don't know what the number on the left is; a bin number, probably.)

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Sorry, craft brewers, you can't trademark the word "craft"

This is not going to be a popular opinion, but I see the point of the U.S. District Court judge who threw out a class action lawsuit seeking to prevent MillerCoors from calling its 70-million-barrel brand Blue Moon a "craft beer."

I'm not arguing that Blue Moon is good or MillerCoors is righteous or anything like that, so please don't flick your mustache foam at me. This is an argument about the English language, and who has the right to define it.

Demeter International trademarked the word "biodynamic" and can successfully sue companies that use it without certification. Different countries define the word "organic" and there are legal ramifications for companies that use it correctly.

But "craft," like "artisanal" or "handmade" or "natural," has no legal certification. It's free for anyone to use. And why shouldn't it be? We're not talking about health issues, as we would be with "organic." What is the public expectation for a "craft beverage"? Most importantly, who gets to define it?

The Brewers Association attempted to step in with a specific definition of "craft beer." But it's not all that well worded.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Australian wines impress skeptical somms at Wine & Spirits Sommelier Scavenger Hunt

Bar Boulud sommelier Michael Madrigale, second from right, leads McLaren Vale Grenache Squad. Josh Greene looks on
Oenophiles sometimes disparage ordinary consumers for unimaginative wine purchases, but the wine trade, as a whole, is far more conservative, even young sommeliers who consider themselves open-minded. Once somms and wine buyers get an image of a wine in their head, even if it's not true anymore, it's really hard to change.

Australia has probably suffered more from U.S. trade perception than any other country. I rank Australia as one of the five greatest wine-producing countries in the world for quality, and I don't mean low-end. But is it in the top five on any U.S. wine lists?

How to correct that? Wine & Spirits magazine held its second Sommelier Scavenger Hunt last week, sending five teams of three North American sommeliers each to five different Australian wine regions.

Last year, the first time Wine & Spirits did this, Michael Madrigale's New York-based team shocked everyone by showing the tremendous diversity of terroir in Napa Valley Cabernet. This opened the eyes of the many sommeliers in attendance, but most of them have to sell Napa Cab anyway so it probably didn't have much market impact.

Australia is a different story.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Pity the trees: A forest dies to make "Napa Valley Then & Now"

How big is this book? The bottle photos are almost actual size
I can't wait to see how much I get at the secondhand bookstore for "Napa Valley Then & Now." If you don't open it, it's very impressive looking. It's about the size of a wart hog, and is far more dangerous. If you are drinking alcohol, taking drugs that impair your motor coordination, or have suffered an injury to your back, neck or shoulders, please do not attempt to lift this book.

If I were to keep this book, it would be the largest book I own, as I do not have a Guttenberg Bible. "Wine Grapes," the 1242-page reference book that I highly recommend, would fit neatly inside it if I hollowed it out.

And if I did hollow out "Napa Valley Then & Now," I wouldn't be missing anything. It may have 1255 extra-large pages on hundreds of Napa Valley wineries, but it doesn't appear to tell me anything about them that I can't read from their websites. Many entries read like the wineries submitted them. Trees were slaughtered willy-nilly to print a wart hog-sized PR brochure.

If it were a food product, the FDA would force it off the market, or at least require a name change. A book called "Napa Valley Then & Now" has only 16 pages of history, half of which are photos. That makes it 1.3% "Then" and 98.7% "Now."

But that's not the most unpardonable sin.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Race and wine in South Africa

"The future's so bright ..." in Hemel-en-Aarde
In September, Cape Town's convention center was full of people pouring wine, and visiting importers and journalists tasting it. Most of South Africa's winemakers and winery owners attended the important Cape Wine event, held only once every three years.

Almost the only black people I saw were servers. South Africa is only 8% white, but in important jobs in the wine industry, it's more like 99% white.

Race is the unspoken issue hovering over the South African wine industry. People there talk about it, but nobody wants to write about it. And when they do, they tiptoe.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Election endorsements: San Francisco 2015

A Republican and a Democrat
Americans don't take elections seriously enough. Only 57.5% of Americans voted in the tight 2012 Presidential election. In 2014, with the whole state cabinet up for election, only 42% of Californians voted. It's worst among young people: only 8.2% of Californians aged 18-24 voted.

And you wonder why I think more people should do endorsements on social media.

Election endorsements are a tradition at The Gray Report. We don't talk enough -- talk, not shout -- about political issues in this country. Moreover, the local mainstream media has let us down.

The best endorsement work here for decades was done by the very liberal Bay Guardian weekly. Whatever you thought of its politics, the Guardian interviewed all the candidates and laid out all the issues. But it ceased publication last year. In making these endorsements, I really missed it.

The San Francisco Chronicle never took endorsements seriously when it had a larger staff. Now that it has downsized and is trying to reinvent itself, its owners have decided that endorsements are a product, not a service. You can't read the Chronicle's endorsements if you're not a subscriber. I know Hearst needs to make money, but this seems foolish, as it intentionally limits the paper's influence.

And this is an election where we could use the oversight of professional journalists.