Monday, December 21, 2015

Where do supermarket sale wines come from?

Where do these wines come from?
Last month on the morning news I saw an ad for a sale at a California wine supermarket. I paused it -- the miracle of DVRs -- and took a screen shot because I wondered where supermarket sale wines come from.

Here's the screen shot of the 9 wines. Who makes these sale wines? How are they so cheap?

Thanks to website of the federal government agency responsible for alcohol, the TTB, I was able to look up the Certificate of Label Approval for each wine. I answered some questions, but raised a few others.

Before I get into the details, here's a quick summary:
Wines with brand names that sound like wineries: 8
Wines where the producer is upfront about who's making it: 2
Wines whose brand name IS actually the winery that made it: 1

Here are the wines, from left to right:

Red Autumn Chardonnay
This was in the Wine of the Month Club, which helpfully rated it 94 points.
A group of very enthusiastic wine tasters bought it for $2.99 and declared it "Goooood." It's made by Fior di Sole winery in Napa, which advertises itself as "Premium bulk wine from Napa Valley and other appellations." Remember that name.

Michel-Schlumberger Chardonnay
This used to be a real winery named after the owner, but in 2011 the winery was sold to the Adams Wine Group, an investment group. The winery does list respected consulting winemaker Kerry Damskey, but he is best known as a Mr. Fixit.
So far as I can tell from a COLA search, the wines are no longer being made at the onetime winery building in Sonoma County; they're now being made at RB Wine Associates in Hopland, which has one of the emptiest websites you'll ever see.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Top 9 places to buy wine: Beginner's guide

What's the best place for good deals on wine? Where's the best selection?

If you're already a wine aficionado -- my usual readers -- this post won't be news. I discovered before Thanksgiving that many of my non-aficionado friends have real questions about the best place to pick up a good bottle of wine at a good price. So for them, and all your non-aficionado friends, here are the top 9 places to buy wine.

1) Locally owned wine shop

If there's a good wine shop in your area, it's the best possible place to buy wine. You can get advice from the staff, and good wine shops pride themselves on having great wines at every price point. Don't be shy: good wine shop staffers live to be asked, "What do you have that's good for $12?" You'll make their whole day.

2) Locally owned wine shop

Can't emphasize this enough. Go to Yelp, search "wine shop" in your area, and see what you can come up with.

3) Big wine chain store

The selection and prices aren't as good at some of these stores as you might think. They maximize profits by buying in bulk, which means they don't carry many interesting small-production wines relative to the size of the store. And while their published sale prices on corporate wines are often very good, they make up for it with big profit margins on "private label" wines that wineries quietly make for them so nobody can compare prices. Private label wines can be good, but paying $15 for $3 worth of wine isn't good value. So how do these stores rank No. 3? Some employees are knowledgeable and helpful. There are usually a lot of reasonable choices around $10, because that's what chain store customers want. And though we're talking about wine, chain stores are usually good places to buy spirits and beer.

4) Whole Foods market

Friday, December 4, 2015

Sonoma County tasting room named America's best restaurant -- again

Is this wine pairing, or lunch?
For the second time in three years, Open Table has declared St. Francis Winery & Vineyards in Sonoma County to be the No. 1 restaurant in the United States of America.

"We're still pinching ourselves," St. Francis CEO Christopher Silva told me.

Pinch hard. It's quite an honor, especially because St. Francis isn't a restaurant. It's a winery. And technically it doesn't serve meals.

Five days a week, three times a day (no dinners), St. Francis holds private sit-down wine tastings with food pairings for $68 in a room that looks out at Hood Mountain. Everybody sits together at a round table for 16.

It's a lot like lunch, although you can't order anything. But probably for legal reasons, it's not technically lunch: it's wine pairing.

"It is still all about the wine," Silva said. "The first thing Chef Bryan Jones does is not say, I've got these wonderful peppers, what should I make with it. He says, I've got this wonderful Zinfandel. What food do I prepare to go with that dish? It's a wine and food pairing and we're deliberate about the fact that wine is the first word."

We may be getting into technicalities here.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Wine retailer cancels Cyber Monday, says "today everything is full price"

For the past 10 years, Delaware wine retailer Frank Pagliaro held a Cyber Monday sale, in which he posted hourly deals on Facebook and Twitter. And he sold a lot of wine.

This year, he sent out an email saying he was done with that.
"I would be in my office the entire day fielding orders via email, tweets and posts... 13+ hours of very little human contact doing nothing but typing on my keyboard.  Don't get me wrong it is a hugely successful marketing game to play, but I was never at all into Xbox or PlayStation.  I like people.  I like hearing their voices.  I like seeing their faces.

So today I'm going back to 1986.

That's when it all started for me.  No laptop, no cellphone, no iPad, no iWatch, no Constant Contact, no Facebook, no Twitter, no WIFI... and certainly no Cyber Monday.  Yup, today everything is full price here at FranksWine." (bold is mine)
Not only that, he basically shut off Internet wine sales:
"There's nowhere to click on this email.  Kinda crazy, huh?  It's like a dead-end street."

I read this and thought, how's that going to work, a non-sale on the busiest discount week of the year?

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Bouncing back from receivership, Cameron Hughes discounts Napa Valley for you

Cameron Hughes never tells me where he gets his wine from, and I don't ask him to break his non-disclosure contracts. So when I tell you I tasted a 6-pack that came from Harlan Estate or one of its offshoots, understand that I learned the provenance elsewhere*, and Hughes refused to confirm or deny it.

Looks like Harlan, right?
* Thanks to some background work from the Wine Berserkers bulletin board, confirmed by the Harlan font on the corks.

I dropped by Hughes' San Francisco office yesterday because I wanted to taste what he calls the best deal of his career -- hell of a statement, for a 6-pack of wine that costs $400 -- and to find out how he's recovering from his business being placed into receivership early this year.

There's obviously a connection. If the officer appointed by the court to oversee his business doesn't believe Cameron Hughes wine has a future, he wouldn't be able to write a check to Bill Harlan for 2000 6-packs of wines Harlan wants to unload under somebody else's name.

What do you want to hear first: How was the declassified Harlan? How's Hughes' business coming along? And what's the terrific Oakville, Napa Valley red wine for under $14! I can recommend because I asked Hughes to pour me something non-Harlany?

Let's go in that order.

Monday, November 23, 2015

It's a new era in wine: Thoughts on Pinot Noir, Robert Parker and the mainstream food media

In wine, the counterculture is the culture now.

In 1992, Bill Clinton became the first admitted marijuana smoker to be elected President. That used to be a litmus test, so much so that Clinton, the most famous equivocator in the White House, claimed, "I didn't inhale." Now, a black man can say he used a little cocaine and be elected President. The world is different now and people paying attention could see it in 1992.

Friday was such a day for me. In three different events, I noticed that changes many people have been predicting have all happened already. Individually they are not news, but the fact that we have actually entered a new era is worth noting.

Point 1: I went to PinotFest, an annual tasting in San Francisco of only west coast Pinot Noir, for the 10th time. When I went to this event for the first time the full-bodied style of Pinot Noir was the most common. You could find leaner styles, and sommeliers gathered around those tables, but they were the minority.

Not anymore.

Friday, November 20, 2015

I don't agree with Robert Parker's wine ratings

I don't agree with Robert Parker's wine ratings.

I think he gives too many ratings that are too high. Not that many wines can be perfect.

I think his ratings reward only power and not balance and elegance.

I think his ratings are biased beyond his control because he doesn't taste blind.

Most of all, my taste is not the same as his. I don't like the kinds of wine that he does so his ratings do not have predictive value for me.

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

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

3 bad translations that lead sommeliers and drinkers to the wrong sakes

Yes, I'm drinking sake in a yukata with Suehiro president Inokichi Shinjo
Sake appreciation is held back in the U.S. by a number of factors, not least of which is difficult language. This is partly why inferior U.S. sakes have so much of our market; they're not just cheaper, they're also easier to understand.

Translation is not a problem for European wines because English and other European languages are related. French used to say "terroir" doesn't translate well, but there are reams of English written about "terroir," and most of us get it.

But Japanese doesn't share any European roots and is prone to terrible and sometimes funny translations, as anyone who has ever rented a car or used a public toilet in Japan knows. I have a sweatshirt that reads "Relax body We are all prostitutes," and even though I speak Japanese I'm not sure what the original sentiment was there.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Georgian wines: an interesting pawn in U.S. geopolitics

Quick quiz: can you name the country whose wines get financial support from the U.S. State Department?

If you said the United States of America, nice try. The U.S. government's idea of supporting its own country's wine is to keep the beer & wine distributors who heavily contribute to political campaigns happy. It's not like the European Union, where wine producers get all sorts of government  support.

No, the answer is a country that is in Europe, but not in the E.U., and therefore not able to balance its budget with money from Germany. It's Georgia: "the country, not the state," as you have to tell everyone whenever you talk about Georgian wine.

Why is the U.S. government supporting Georgian wine?

"Because they want Georgia to stay focused on the west instead of their big neighbor to the north," says Lisa Granik, an MW who presented a tasting of Georgian wines recently in San Francisco.

Georgia's economy is a mess. Part of its territory is occupied by Russia, which cut off imports of its wines in 2006, leading to a financial crisis. Believe it or not, its number one export is now used cars. People are selling off whatever they have to feed themselves.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Esquire TV's "Uncorked:" Annoying minor-league sommelier students strike out

"Uncorked" is only watchable when the actual Master Sommeliers, seated, are on the screen.
Which do you prefer watching: minor-league baseball or Major League Baseball?

The analogy occurred to me while I slogged through the first episode of Esquire TV's new show "Uncorked," which premiers Nov. 10. (You might have Esquire TV and not even know it; I do.)

It's basically a 10-hour version of the movie "Somm" and is inferior to "Somm" (which I enjoyed) in most ways. By the 17th minute of "Uncorked," I doubted that I could make it through an entire 45-minute episode.

But in the second half of the premier, suddenly it got a lot more watchable, and the flaw in these sommelier-student shows -- there's a sequel to "Somm" coming out -- became obvious.

Actual Master Sommeliers are, in my experience, really fun people to be around. More than just knowledgeable about wine, they're enthusiastic. They can discuss wine minutiae or generalities without being condescending. And their service training prevents them from being self-centered. You know you're dining with master somms when your fellow diners keep quietly refilling your water glass.

They are the major leaguers. They're graceful; they're a pleasure to watch. In contrast, master sommelier students are self-absorbed and awkward.

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.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

How to become a scuba diver: 7 steps to enjoying the ocean

From the dive deck of the MV Febrina in Papua New Guinea
My wife and I like to go scuba diving on vacation. In the right places, being underwater is like spending an hour in heaven. It's so peaceful, and colorful, and you can have experiences like the time I danced with a dolphin, one of the greatest moments of my life.

Often I talk to people who are interested in scuba diving but haven't taken the plunge. Or worse, they tried a single "experience dive" at a resort and didn't like it.

Fun facts about scuba diving:

* You don't have to be a good swimmer (I'm not). You don't need to be an athlete either, but you do need to be in reasonable health.

* You don't have to own any equipment

* Diving can be expensive, but I've had great dives in some countries for $25 each -- not bad for an hour underwater

"Get me away from these divers!" Courtesy Leisure Pro
* Sharks are afraid of you and the noise you make breathing underwater. After you've been diving a while, you'll find yourself chasing sharks, not the other way around. And last year we enjoyed swimming right in the middle of big schools of barracuda.

* In fact, the most dangerous things underwater are passive -- mostly stuff with pointy spines. Don't touch the wildlife, listen to your dive guide, and you'll be fine.

Media coverage of scuba diving is significantly weaker than coverage of wine. Magazines are subsidized by ads from equipment makers and resorts, and their articles reflect that. Most intro-to-scuba articles are overly technical, and none that I've seen are candid about where the best diving is, either because they're written by novices ("I just got certified and it's great!") or they don't want to offend advertisers.

So here are my 7 simple steps for not just becoming a scuba diver, but loving life underwater.

1) Sign up for a 5-day certification class in a beautiful, warm vacation spot

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

United Airlines brought back free wine and beer because it had to

Food on United international, in coach. Photo Jonathan Bourne
United Airlines quietly brought back free wine and beer on international flights earlier this year. It's a good sign that civilization is still possible in the United States.

United did not do this for philosophical reasons, not the way Qantas and Air New Zealand serve their country's wines because it's the right thing to do. United wouldn't give you free toilet paper if they thought they could get away with it; in fact, United has beta-tested that idea.

No, United had to bring back free beer and wine on flights to Europe and Asia because Europeans and Asians consider it part of a meal. This cultural difference was costing the U.S. airlines business. First Delta brought back free wine, then American Airlines. United was the last holdout.

Almost every American, even those who enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, is willing to accept alcohol being classified as a luxury product, because that's what our culture teaches us.

Friday, September 11, 2015

10 observations about the Finger Lakes

A typical Finger Lakes winery. Good news: Wines are quite good. Bad news: They also sell, and burn, patchouli incense. We had to take wines outside to smell them.
1. The red wines are better than expected
The two most-planted red vinifera grapes are Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir. In warm vintages, both make pretty good wines: very Old World style and suitable for fans of varietal typicity and elegance.

2. The Rieslings are, as a group, more disappointing than they should be
Riesling is crucial to the Finger Lakes because there are more than 800 acres of it; the second-most planted vinifera grape is Chardonnay, with only about 350 acres. And the very best wines are Riesling. Unfortunately, many producers seem to do everything they can to hide their Riesling's acidity, but freshness should be a Finger Lakes Riesling's birthright. 

3. The region is a long way behind California in wine tourism
Some wineries will tell you that's not a bug, it's a feature: they're charming, they're in barns, they don't have that California slickness. Sorry folks, you're drawing from the exact same customer pool as Sonoma County and you really could up your game. I'm not even talking about Napa Valley. Put together a trade delegation to, say, Paso Robles. Visit wineries at random and see how nice their tasting rooms are and how welcoming and informed their tasting room staffs are. In the Finger Lakes, I went to a place that offered pours in tiny plastic thimbles -- picture the cup that comes atop a bottle of cough syrup, only smaller -- from bottles that had been open at room temperature for who knows how many days. And this place, inside a major tourist attraction, is called the Finger Lakes Wine Center. If it was Napa Valley, the vintners would sue them to stop using the name.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

What's it like to be a harvest intern? All cleaning, with lots of water

P prefers to remain anonymous, but this is his foot
Today I'm running a guest post by P., who is working this summer as a harvest intern in Napa Valley. It's quite evocative and if he weren't going to be a winemaker, he'd be a pretty good writer.

Working vintage as a harvest intern or cellar hand is always good fun. That being said, four harvests in, I’m starting to get a little jaded. “Oh yes, this wine is very special because of our ‘X' terroir and careful treatment of the wines using ‘bla bla bla’ barrels and techniques."

I come from a culture where not many people get into the wine industry – think accounting, engineering or finance as being your typical upper-middle class route. I am lucky having parents who indulged me in my studies of viticulture and enology. “Viticulture” I said, as I tried to justify my choice of subject, “that’s farming. At least I’ll learn how to feed the world, right?”

Yes, if feeding the world and ending famine could only be done with $200 Napa Cabs.

After four years of schooling, with some very intense biochemistry and organic chemistry that seem to make kids rethink wine science being "easy," apparently I am an "indispensable asset to any winery" that hires me, or so I’ve been told.

So what does one do in a winery, intern or eitherwise?

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Why don't wine companies boast about sales like movie companies?

Is it a good movie? Doesn't really matter, does it?
Every Monday, entertainment sections around the U.S. run stories about the films that made the most money over the weekend. They're more common than film reviews, and have become reviews of a sort themselves.

A film, no matter how poorly plotted, is a success if it sells enough tickets. No matter how delightful it is, a film comes in for mockery if its opening weekend doesn't measure up.

Were these stories in the business section, I wouldn't raise an eyebrow.* But they're not: they run alongside features about music or sports or food.

* I cannot actually raise an eyebrow anyway.

They are the ultimate triumph of capitalist conformity. They tell us what other people are watching.

As you can tell I'm not a big fan of this style of film coverage. But I did recently get to wondering why wine isn't covered the same way.

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.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Go to Greece! No worries for tourists, and you're actually helping

A frappe on the beach, in the shade, with a nice cool breeze. What crisis?
Last week I was in Greece as part of a press trip to Peloponnese wine country. When I told people I was going, a lot of folks cautioned me to be careful, and everyone was curious about what it's like there right now.

The short answer is: as great for tourism as always.

In vacation areas, including every beach we went by, all the restaurants were open and doing good business.

Rooftop restaurant with a view in Athens
Nobody in the world understands seafront restaurants as well as the Greeks: tables on the sand, under canopies for shade, kitchen across the street, plates of hot and cold appetizers, refreshing white wines and/or bottles of ouzo with an ice bucket.

Athens seemed to have more closed shops than the last time I was there three years ago. And people were waiting in line outside of every ATM.

But the majority of businesses are open. Grocery stores are well-stocked. Bars and restaurants seem to be doing OK. I'm told locals are spending less when they go out, but they are still going out.

We stayed near Syntagma Square, the site of most protests, but unfortunately there was no protest while I was there.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

New York restaurant wine market, explained

Photo courtesy Ryan Fischer
New York city's wine market is arguably the best in the world, with an island full of wealthy people and no allegiance to any region or country. It's also insular and myopic and to outsiders can look like a bunch of people trying to answer the question, "How can I be more hip than you?"

I spent some time on a bus recently with Levi Dalton, Manhattan sommelier, Eater NY editor and host of the "I'll Drink to That" podcast. Levi shared with me some theories about the New York wine market that I, as an outsider, found fascinating, and which I haven't read in one place before, though he has discussed them on his podcast.

Levi cautioned me that other outsiders (I live in California, which is where New Yorkers come to complain about the bagels and pizza) have embarrassed themselves trying to write about the New York wine market, but I assured him that not only would I put this in my own words and in several cases go further than he did; I would tell readers that any mistakes in this post are his, not mine.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Sileni turns down the volume of its Sauvignon Blanc

Sileni Nano comes with its own cup
Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is one of the most popular wines in the U.S., but not necessarily with sommeliers. It can be a caricature of itself. The challenge in New Zealand is not to make a wine with strong flavors, but to keep them in balance.

Sileni Estates makes two Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs for the U.S. market, and uses two different methods to add complexity and -- how can I put this nicely -- turn down that grassy lawn character that can scream at you from across the table.

Sileni also makes the best designed one-cup wine product I've ever seen -- and the Sauvignon Blanc in it is also pretty good. The fairly large cup allows you to drink without fear of spillage, and there's no metal in it, which means you can get it past metal detectors to drink in a ballpark or concert hall, or safely bring it to Magneto in prison.

When I agreed to do a sponsored post for Sileni, I thought, hey, a writer's gotta eat. I did not, honestly, expect that I would end up eating dinner with their two Sauvignon Blancs twice. But that's exactly what happened. I would have a glass of "The Straits" Reserve Sauvignon Blanc beside me as I type this, if the bottle weren't empty, which is the highest praise in my house. You'd be astounded by how much expensive wine we pour down the drain. But not this.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

New York City firefighter wins Napa Valley Wine Train / Diablo Valley hotel prize

Chris Ewen and his fiancee Bridget
I used a random number generator to pick the winner of last week's giveaway on the blog, of a free trip on the Napa Valley Wine Train for two with a free night in a Diablo Valley hotel.

Sometimes there's karma. The winner is Chris Ewen, a New York City firefighter.

Chris is 35, lives on Long Island and works in Manhattan. He told me by e-mail, "I started getting really into wine a couple years ago. Been to Napa a while back but didn't really know what I was doing or where to go."

Chris says he's not sure when he'll get to California to claim his prize, but he hopes to travel with his fiancee Bridget.

Chris chose Ovid as the winery he'd like to visit. "I can't afford the wines but the tasting room and view looked spectacular," he said. Ovid informed me today that they would be happy to host Chris and his guest. Yay! Chris also gave me a second choice of Napa Valley winery, Shafer Vineyards, and they also offered him a tasting. Nice people, the Shafers.

Now that's an amazing two days in the Napa Valley: The Napa Valley Wine Train (which is a lot of fun), Ovid and Shafer, with a night at a Diablo Valley hotel in between. Thanks to Diablo Valley hotels, Ovid and Shafer for offering the prizes, and congratulations to Chris for winning!

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

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Constellation bets $315 million that vineyards don't matter in wine

Sweet-tasting Meiomi has rapidly become one of America's favorite beverages with "Pinot Noir" on the label. More than 7 million bottles were sold in 2014. As the grapes are bought relatively cheaply  all over coastal California, and the wine sells for $20 a bottle, it's clearly a nicely profitable item.

That's why Constellation bought Meiomi this week. But is a wine brand, by itself, with no other assets -- no vineyards, no winery -- really worth $315 million?

Are American wine drinkers really that stupid?

For a little perspective, last month The Wine Group bought Benziger for $90 million. Benziger makes only about 20% as much wine as Meiomi, but the purchase came with two wineries and an 85-acre estate vineyard. The Wine Group thinks Sonoma County vineyards are valuable.

In May, Gallo spent an undisclosed amount to buy 642 acres of vineyards in Napa Valley, and two months earlier Gallo bought J Vineyards & Winery, which came with 300 acres of vineyards in Sonoma County. Gallo thinks Napa and Sonoma vineyards are valuable. Jackson Family Wines is buying vineyards all over Oregon because it thinks Oregon Pinot Noir is valuable.

Meanwhile, Constellation thinks Americans don't care where their wines come from. And in fact, Constellation plans to make Meiomi at different wine factories all over California.

Constellation's directors are not stupid, or bad businessmen. Its stock is up about 40% over the last 7 months, and that has not been achieved by farming.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Free ride! The Gray Report gives away a Napa Valley Wine Train / Diablo Valley hotel package

Hey readers, how would you like to ride the Napa Valley Wine Train for free -- with a free hotel room!

One lucky reader is going to win a free package for 2: a value of up to $500! Plus, you can arrange the trip on a day that's convenient for you.

Diablo Valley is sponsoring a promotion to put itself more firmly on the tourist map. It's about a 35-mile drive from Concord, where the hotels in this package are, to the city of Napa, where the train is. So even though Diablo Valley is in between San Francisco and Napa, which has its advantages, staying there is not most people's first idea when planning a Wine Country holiday.

This summer, Diablo Valley hotels created an amazing deal to lure more guests: A free trip for 2 on the Wine Train as a bonus for a single night's paid stay, for the first 15 people to book it. Giving one away to one of my readers is a way to publicize that deal.
The view from the dining car

This free package includes:
* One night's stay, free, for 2 people (one room) at one of 8 Diablo Valley hotels
* One ticket for 2 people, free, on the Napa Valley Wine Train, for the lunch or dinner package ($129 value per person), the Grgich Hills tour package ($179 value per person), or the Valley First Winery tour package ($179 value per person)

Not included:
* Transportation between Diablo Valley and Napa (possible by paid van, but your own car is preferable)
* Transportation between your home and Diablo Valley
* Anything else (don't get greedy)

I rode on the Napa Valley Wine Train in 2010 and had a great time, even though I expected to mock it. I wrote about that voyage in detail and you can read about it here.

But what you want to know is, how do I score the free tickets?

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.