Friday, December 30, 2016

Good news: Google decides I'm no longer a fraud

Recently I went public with something that had been bothering me for 6 years: that Google had determined my blog to be a fraud.

Shortly afterward, a civilian on a Google help board suggested I use Google's appeals process to re-appeal my case: to try again to prove I am innocent of charges I never even understood. (There's a book on this topic.)

So I did. Unlike my first appeal in 2010, after Google declared me a "risk of generating invalid activity," I mentioned some of the awards I have won from blogging. I also wrote that I was re-appealing after learning about the fake news peddlers who Google is paying tens of thousands of dollars. "I tell the truth at The Gray Report. Go and look," I wrote.

Cheeky, huh?

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Restaurant secret: Guess what they're adding to your Champagne?

These numbers are before adding sugar. Courtesy Wine Folly
Do you ever order a glass of Champagne in restaurants? I do. You know what they might be adding to it?

A pinch of sugar.

I learned this recently from someone who has been spending a lot of time working with restaurants on their wine by-the-glass programs in more than one part of the country, though that person believes New York is the epicenter of it.

The reason is this: very few restaurants have a good preservation system for Champagne. A bottle opened at 6 pm might not appear to have much fizz left at 8:30 pm.

Adding a touch of sugar just before serving -- less than the size of the packets used for coffee -- causes the Champagne to fizz up. It looks festive, and the customer can't complain that the wine has gone flat, no matter how it tastes. Try it at home: it works.

There's a reason no news organization has done an investigation of this practice, which is widely known among restaurant people: it's not harmful. Almost all sparkling wine has residual sugar anyway, so it's not a case where a diabetic would unknowingly face a health risk. A packet of sugar contains about 4 grams of sugar, for about 16 calories.

The only thing at risk is the taste of the Champagne. A glass of Brut Champagne might have, on average, about 2 grams of residual sugar. Adding half a packet of sugar to freshen up the bubbles doubles the sugar content, making it sweeter than a glass of Extra Dry Champagne. The 2 extra grams of sugar won't kill you: try asking the chef how much butter and salt is in your appetizer.

But if you ever thought the Champagne you ordered tasted a little sweeter than you expected, now you know why.

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

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

If natural wine were food: review of Bar Tartine alumnus Nick Balla's popup Motze

The menu comes on a tile, apparently to save paper
If chefs are today's rock stars, Motze is Nick Balla's experimental noise album. It is like a natural wine you can eat. And it is still looking for an audience.

Balla is leaving San Francisco's Bar Tartine after five years to open his own restaurant. In the interim, he has a year-and-a-half lease on a spot just down Valencia Street, and has used it to open what he calls a popup, Motze. At least at first, Balla is relying on local ingredients that come in the door that day.

It's possible that Motze might not make it halfway through 2017, though: the Yelp reviews are not very good, and on the Tuesday night we visited, the restaurant was less than 1/4 full even in prime time.

So if you're curious about what one of San Francisco's most influential chefs (read this laudatory SF Chronicle profile) is doing in his experimental noise album phase, you better get there quickly. New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov has called Bar Tartine his favorite SF restaurant. Eric, you better book Motze soon. Does that mean I'm recommending a visit for everyone? Well, maybe, with some caveats. Despite everything written below, we might go back (though I'll wear a false nose or something.)

Friday, December 23, 2016

Trump winery needs Mexican farmworkers: Hot takes and realistic takes

News item: Trump Vineyard Estates has applied for six seasonal foreign-worker visas, hoping to underpay Mexicans for the skilled job of pruning grapevines.

Hot take: Trump sends jobs to Mexico!

Realistic take: Tending grapevines is skilled labor, and there aren't enough Americans who do it.

In 2014, one Mendocino County winery began using prison labor to harvest grapes because of the shortage of farmworkers. And grape picking requires less skill and experience than pruning.

Hopefully Trump's personal experience with his namesake winery will encourage him to support more temporary farmworker visas. We can't feed America without the help of our neighbors in Mexico.

Hot take: Trump winery pays only $10.72 an hour for grape pruners. If the job paid better, more Americans would do it!

Realistic take: That will be true if the US goes into another great depression, but until then, not likely.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Dear Google: I am not a fraud

In 2010, Google declared my blog a fraud.

This has been bothering me for six years. I have been called a lot of things, but few stung like this: the most powerful company in the world called me a fraud.

Meanwhile, Google has been paying people who write posts like "Pope Endorses Trump" tens of thousands of dollars.

Until the November election, I thought this was just a mistake by Google: an algorithm that somehow mischaracterized me. But now I realize I'm a flyspeck in a large pattern.

The major sources of news on the Internet, Google and Facebook, have created an information reward structure that enriches people who invent blatant lies, the more outrageous the better. As for someone like me, who tries to provide original content that is actually true ... well, let me tell you about my reward.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

In EU wine, the rich countries get the government subsidies

Smithers, are the Greeks at the door again? Release the hounds.
European wine producers receive government support, and I'm all for that. I wish American wine producers got more support from our government, rather than all our agricultural subsidies going to rich landholders to not grow grain.

However, the question is, which countries should get the most EU support?

My guess would have been three countries that make great wine but have been in economic crisis for years: Greece, Portugal and Spain. Wrong.

A new study published in the Journal of Wine Economics shows that just as in the US, the rich EU countries get the subsidies. Of course they do.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

American wine consumers still don't care about what sommeliers like

Wine Purchase Decision Making by percentage of respondents
If you ask a sommelier what's most important about wine, in order, she'll probably tell you region, then producer, then grape.

For average American wine consumers, it's almost backwards.

Sonoma State University released its third annual American Wine Consumer Survey this week. It's based on 1081 consumers, and ends thus: "Caveat: Since this survey is based on a representative sample of American wine consumers, and not a random sample, it cannot be generalized to all wine consumers." This begs the question, "Why bother?" But I'll report some of its findings anyway because what the hell, we're in the post-fact era, and only liberals worry about truthiness.

The survey asked what factors are most important in buying a wine. Price is No. 1, of course. But after that, it's brand, varietal and country.

I get that: people outside the gourmet bubble ask me what I think of French wines, or Spanish wines, not what I think about St-Joseph wines or Rias Baixas wines.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

How well does Stags Leap District wine age? Thoughts on a 25-year blind vertical tasting

Digital art by Daniel Eskridge
Earlier this month I attended an interesting blind tasting held by Stags Leap District Winegrowers. We tried 18 Cabernet Sauvignons from 13 vintages dating back to 1991. It was an unusual setup because the wines were from 18 different wineries.

Even so, it was easy to track the progression in ripeness in Napa. The wines from 2003 on were mostly made with different intentions than the earlier wines. Most had more up-front fruit that tastes darker, and I wonder how they will age. That's not the goal of most of Napa Valley anymore -- or for that matter, of most wineries in the world -- and I'm not here to pretend that it should be.

The older wines in this tasting were cherry-picked because the wineries think they're still tasting good. It's very different from going to a winery and tasting 10 vintages in a row. The two oldest wines in the tasting were two of my favorites, but that doesn't mean those wineries consistently make age-worthy wines. Once in New Mexico I tasted a 10-year-old Pinot Noir that was fabulous and I wondered why the winery had stopped making still wines. "That was the only good one we made," the winemaker told me. So you never know.

But that said, here were the highlights, some lowlights, and random thoughts from the tasting.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Don't die before drinking your best wines: What I learned when my plane caught fire

I thought this might be the last photo of me, and I was OK with that
I learned I won a Born Digital Wine Award on Thursday night, while at the home of my friend Eduardo Brethauer in Santiago, Chile. We celebrated briefly, but without even sharing any wine because I had a plane to catch.

Eight hours later that plane was on fire over the Pacific Ocean. And I really, really regretted not having had a glass of bubbly with Eduardo.

Obviously there is a happy ending as I am not writing this from beyond the grave. But for 25 minutes, smoke slowly wisped through the front of the cabin and tense messages from the crew reminded us where the life vests were under each kind of seat. I had time for regrets. And a surprising number were about wine.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Wine is like TV: there are no more bad vintages like 1969

 We finished behind what?
My favorite TV critic, Alan Sepinwall, co-authored a new book purporting to rank the top 100 TV shows of all time. It's easy to nitpick: Cheers above Breaking Bad? But the rankings are theirs, not mine, and this is a great opportunity to reintroduce the best column I've ever read about people who bitch about Top 100 lists like this.

We are living in the best era ever for American television, and the works in progress listed in the back of the book, not ranked because their stories haven't finished, constitute a better "vintage" of television than any previous year.

That got me to thinking about wine. People of a certain age remember printed vintage charts that oenophiles carried in their wallets. Until about 20 years ago, most wine lovers thought about a vintage mainly by how good or bad it was in Bordeaux. That was a measure of how important Bordeaux was in the wine world, but also of how bad a bad vintage in Bordeaux could be: The wines were actually unpleasant to drink. The same was true in Burgundy. It wasn't until Napa Valley came to prominence in the 1990s that the world discovered a great wine region where a "bad" vintage didn't mean terrible wines.

Nowadays, though, there simply is not a bad vintage for wine as a whole.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Is this wine good for Thanksgiving? Take the quiz! (5 questions)

Thanksgiving is one of the trickiest holidays for people who like wine but aren't obsessive about it. One of the questions wine experts get asked most often is: is this a good Thanksgiving wine?

At The Gray Report we're here to help with a simple 5-question quiz. You don't have to know anything about wine in general. If only cooking a perfect turkey was this easy!

Powered by Interact

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

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

How common are Champagne-related deaths?

Did Champagne kill Cassandra Lynn Hensley? Answer below!
There's a stat kicking around the Internet: that 24 people a year die from Champagne corks. I won't link to any stories just now to build suspense. But the number is oddly specific.

I decided to briefly look into this before fact-checking becomes illegal in the United States. How safe are your children around Champagne? Think of the children!

Here's what I could come up with:

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

What President Trump means for the wine world

Photo by Jennifer C. Martin
President-elect Donald Trump owns a winery, but does not drink.

If the U.S. wine industry is looking for comfort in the wake of the election, it's in the first part of that sentence. Trump is unlikely to pursue legislation or regulations that hurt his own businesses.

People are not going to stop drinking because Trump is President. George W. Bush was a teetotaller and U.S. wine consumption rose steadily throughout his tenure.

However, foreign wine producers dependent on the U.S. market cannot feel comfortable today.

When French leaders spoke out against the U.S. invasion of Iraq under Bush, many U.S. drinkers turned their backs on French wine. No matter that France was right: we didn't want to hear it. People even renamed fried potatoes as "Freedom Fries."

French President Francois Hollande once said that Trump made him want to retch. His personal dislike of Trump may not matter.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Tawny Port's popularity, such as it is, comes from San Francisco restaurants

George Sandeman
Tawny Port, now easily the best-selling fortified wine in the US, is apparently a San Francisco phenomenon.

George Sandeman, chairman of the brand named after his ancestors (it's now owned by Sogrape), told this story while promoting a new bottle design for Sandeman Tawny Ports.

Sandeman Tawny Ports now look just like whiskey. This is an attempt to confer some of whiskey's cachet with millennials, but I digress. Here's the San Francisco-discovers-Tawny story.

Sandeman said he was working in New York for the big wine importer Chateau & Estate Wines. Sales of vintage Port in San Francisco were dead.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

My top wine and spirits stories in October

I wrote one of these, and one of those ...
Every month I write a bunch of stories about wine that don't appear on my blog. Unless you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you don't know these stories exist, so I look even lazier than I am.

Here are some of my best stories from October.

Against local liquor: I'm as much a locavore as anyone, but for whiskey I make an exception because I prefer whiskey that tastes good.

Pacific Northwest harvest the new normal: What kind of vintage was 2016 in Oregon and Washington? Depends on what side of the Columbia River you're on.

Jackson Family Wines swallows up another Oregon winery: Global warming and seemingly the end of bad vintages make Oregon vineyards a different kind of commercial commodity.

Another top vintage for Northern California: Was there ever any doubt?

Wine Blogging 101: What college students asked me about wine and blogging: A reminder to prepare yourself to answer the basics.

Constellation buys Charles Smith wines: In 2010, Charles Smith sued one or more of my blog commenters! Fortunately now that he's been paid $120 million, it's safe to comment again. Probably.

Unnecessary wine appliance seduces media: I know more about this device now than when I wrote the story, so maybe there will be another story in the future. For now, enjoy the snark.

And my favorite post from this blog last month, ICYMI:

Donald Trump, sommelier: Because you're going to pay for that wine. I promise you, you're going to pay for that wine.

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

Friday, October 28, 2016

Ernest Vineyards shows how to make land-loving wines without the land

Todd Gottula and Erin Brooks
Start with the wines. They're earnest: fresh-tasting, balanced, complex Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from the Sonoma Coast. There's an oil painting on the label of an old man smoking a pipe, and it gives you the impression of a salt-of-the-earth farmer, as do the wines. These are vineyard-driven wines and it seems like they must be made by someone who loves the land.

At first glance, the back story doesn't fit. They're tech people, the couple behind Ernest Vineyards. Newcomers to the wine industry. They don't own any vineyards. In fact, they live in San Francisco, from where one still runs a software company.

But if you break bread with Todd Gottula and Erin Brooks, you learn the back story fits much better than it seems. They are wine lovers, land lovers and farm lovers, and their wines are a passion project.

It was surprisingly hard, over a meal at their favorite local restaurant Bar Agricole, to get them to drink their own wines.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

"Is a $100 wine better?"

I got this question from a couple of older civilians who say they like wine, but could never imagine spending that much money on it.

Here's the answer I gave: "It depends on the $100 wine. They are not all the same, not at all. A lot of wineries just charge more for reputation. And wine varies a lot. We all have personal preferences. There might be a $100 wine that somebody thinks is terrific but that I'm bored by.

It also depends on why the wine costs $100. Is it a new wine that costs $100 on release? Then I think it's less likely to be worth it to you. But if you're spending $100 for a wine that has aged for some years, then it might be worth it for the unique experience.

I am willing to spend $100 on wines that I think are both interesting and delicious. Maybe it comes from some special vineyard and they don't make very much of it and scarcity is the reason it's expensive."

Her: "But what does a $100 wine taste like to make it worth it?" (she and her husband look at me skeptically)

Me: "For me, a $100 wine should have complexity, meaning I taste a lot of different flavors in it; balance (which I didn't define but should have); and a long finish. A long finish means that you continue to taste it long after you sipped it. For me it's probably the best thing about a great wine.

But to find a wine like that, you can't just buy any $100 wine. You need advice from somebody who has tasted the wine. It's best to go to a good wine shop, maybe try some cheaper wines to see if you agree with their judgments. Or you can ask a sommelier at a restaurant you trust. All $100 wines are not the same. But some of them are worth it, yes."

Here's the answer I should have given: "Not for you ma'am."

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

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Global warming and cocktails force Cognac to evolve

Patrice Pinet
Earlier this week I tasted a $3500 Cognac. That's a kind of evolution -- crazy prices at the highest end -- but it's not the evolution I'm talking about.

Master blender Patrice Pinet has been with Courvoisier since 1989. He came to San Francisco this week to pour Cognac for sommeliers who aren't selling as much of it as in the past, and made time to talk with me about how global warming and the cocktail revolution are affecting the spirit.

Unlike most distilled spirits, Cognac is a brandy made from wine, which means its source ingredient is sensitive to global warming.

In the 1800s, Cognac was made mostly from Folle Blanche grapes, which are high-acid and aromatic, but these were mostly replaced after phylloxera by more dependable but less interesting Ugni Blanc, an import from Italy (where it's called Trebbiano.)

Now, however, the Ugni Blanc is ripening too quickly. Pinet said average grape harvests are three weeks earlier than 30 years ago. This presents a problem California wine fans will understand: too often the sugars develop ahead of the flavors.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Endorsements for San Francisco, California election of November 2016

Marijuana legalization is one of this election's most important propositions
I always make electoral endorsements because we should talk more, and with more civility, about our political choices, particularly local ones. This is the worst election I've ever done this for but that has nothing to do with the easy choice at the top of the ballot. We have an unwieldy 17 state ballot propositions and 24 city proposals.

I'll get right to the endorsements after long-awaited praise for the San Francisco Chronicle, my former employer. I've been complaining for years about the Chronicle's effort level on endorsements but this year, finally, it did a great job, interviewing all the top candidates and using its resources to investigate all the propositions. I don't agree with all of its choices, but the Chronicle put in the work and its recommendations are here.

As always, I am grateful to the very liberal San Francisco Bay Guardian, which now rises from the dead only to do its always well-researched endorsements. They are here.

Now on to my endorsements, which are brief at the top on the obvious ones. You can read more about those elsewhere.

US President

Hillary Clinton

US Senate

Kamala Harris

US House of Representatives, District 12

Nancy Pelosi

Jane Kim
California State Senate District 11

Jane Kim

Her opponent Scott Wiener is better financed, and not a terrible choice, but he takes a lot of wrong-headed positions and has run a relentlessly negative campaign. Kim is more representative of San Francisco values.

California State Assembly District 17

David Chiu 

I don't love him but he's just better qualified than the opposition.

San Francisco County Superior Court Judge, Office 7

Victor Hwang

Hwang has worked as both a prosecutor for 7 years in San Francisco and, before that, as a public defender for 4 years in Los Angeles. He is the better qualified candidate and has the great majority of endorsements, including a large number of endorsements from judges.

San Francisco Community College Board

Amy Bacharach, Rafael Mandelman, Alex Randolph, Shanell Williams

I hate voting for this board.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Bourbon history untangled in new book

As Bourbon is hot, Fred Minnick is writing books about it with military precision. His latest, "Bourbon: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of an American Whiskey" is his third in the last three years. It's his most ambitious and authoritative yet, and it leads me to wonder what he's going to do for an encore.

With this book, Minnick has tried to write the definitive history of America's domestic spirit. That approach bogs it down in the beginning, as he spends the opening chapter of the book trying to answer an unanswerable question, namely who is the father of bourbon (spoiler: nobody). I had the book sitting around for a few weeks and it took me several false starts to get past that part.

Fortunately, what begins as a fairly academic history takes off at the coming of Prohibition, at which point it becomes a page-turner.

The politics of distillation immediately before and during Prohibition are fascinating.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Donald Trump, sommelier

Welcome to the restaurant. It's a great restaurant, the best restaurant, and we have all the best wines here. All the best. This is a great wine list and I've gotten a lot of credit for it.

Who's going to order at this table? Is there a man you can reach by cell phone? No? Well, that's fine, that's why I'm here. I want you to be very happy. I'll get you the best wine, the finest wine. I drink the best wines all the time, and believe me, a lot of women really like my wines. Really like them.

I think you should start off with Champagne. We call it Champagne but it's really just wine with bubbles in it. A lot of people don't know this, but the best Champagnes, the very best, they're all from the USA. We have top people working on putting the bubbles into them, really top people. Some of our Champagnes have 20 or 30 times as many bubbles as that stuff from France. Maybe 40 times. I have real pride in American know-how. We're keeping these Champagne companies from going overseas. Keeping those Champagne jobs in Virginia. And we're going to bring more Champagne jobs to Ohio, to Michigan, to Florida. We are. We can put bubbles in wine in these states Barack Obama ruined. I've been to Michigan, and let me tell you, it's a smoking cesspit of dangerous criminals, but we're going to make it great again.

You don't want Champagne? Really? Are you sure you don't want to check with your husbands?

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Some facts for the Wine Advocate's sake investigation

Last week I published a blog post detailing the curious appearance of a wine exporter called The Taste of Sake that offered all 78 sakes rated 90 points or above by The Wine Advocate, and nothing else. You can read that blog post here.

Since I published that post The Taste of Sake website has been taken down, which is also curious. Fortunately I took the precaution of saving its pages in PDF format. If you want to take a look, they are here.

Wine Advocate Editor-in-Chief Lisa Perrotti-Brown posted the following comment on that first blog post:

W. Blake Gray, In the event that you have not yet seen this response, I thought I would post it here. This has also appeared on our Bulletin Board:
“We are investigating the facts behind these allegations. I will make clear however that Liwen Hao was hired specifically to review Asian wines and sake, because we feel there is a small but growing international interest in these beverages. He did not just taste 78 sakes, he tasted a few hundred, and they did not just come from one company. He shortlisted 78 of the sakes that came in at 90 points or above for his first report, because these were the ones he believed would be of international interest. We made no secret of the fact that we would be publishing a sake report and Liwen was in Japan tasting with brewers for a couple of weeks in April, which must have created a good deal of local interest. So I’m not surprised that an opportunistic company was set up to take advantage in increased international interest in sake as a result of the report. I’m also not surprised that the newly established company decided to offer the 78 sakes we reviewed. What we need to establish is if that company had access to any of the sake notes or scores prior to publication, which is a situation we take the utmost measures to avoid. Even the suggestion that this could have happened is a matter we take very seriously.”

Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW, Editor-in-Chief, Robert Parker Wine Advocate

Subsequently, some readers of the original blog post have come forward with some facts to help Ms. Perrotti-Brown in her investigation.

Here is what I have been able to verify (many of the links confirming the information are in Japanese):

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

US government makes small, smart move toward accurate alcohol levels on wine labels

One of my longtime criticisms of US wine law is the inaccuracy of alcohol levels on labels. While all of Europe (and Argentina) requires the alcohol level listed on the bottle  to be within 0.5% of the actual alcohol level, the US allows it to be off by as much as 1.5%.

That law hasn't changed, unfortunately. But the federal TTB (Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau) made a small rule change yesterday with big implications.

This rule change will not only lead to better information; it will lead to better wine.

The rule change is a simple, smart one. When applying for federal label approval for wine, producers and importers no longer must list the alcohol level on the application.

Wine companies also no longer need to list the vintage on the application, which makes sense. If the label hasn't changed in a generation, why should a winery need to reapply for approval? But I digress.

The federal label approval process has always been the No. 1 reason wine producers give for not being able to provide consumers with accurate alcohol information.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

A curious thing: Every Wine Advocate-rated sake from one exporter

On the day that the Wine Advocate released its first ratings of sake since 1998, I discovered a curious thing. On Aug. 31, the Wine Advocate released ratings of exactly 78 sakes, giving each 90 points or more.

On that same day, an exporter based in Tokyo called The Taste of Sake offered for sale exactly 78 sakes, no more no less, from the same 78 producers. It sells 78 sakes, all sakes rated by the Wine Advocate and ONLY sakes rated by the Wine Advocate.

The Financial Times has already written about the Wine Advocate sake ratings and the rush for the top-rated sakes they engendered (the article mistakenly attributes the ratings to Robert Parker, but they were done by Wine Advocate critic Liwen Hao.)

The top-rated sake, given 98 points by the Advocate, was offered by The Taste of Sake for $160 a bottle on the day the ratings were released (it previously sold for $45 from the brewery). Within a week, that price was up to $5000 a bottle.

So clearly somebody hopes to profit from the Wine Advocate's sake ratings. But how did we get here?

Here's what I know:

The Taste of Sake is a corporation licensed on June 6 of this year in Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo. It registered its website on July 1 of this year.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

You can't just buy "beer" (or "wine") for your friends anymore

A non-oenophile friend complained to me recently about a mutual acquaintance; we'll call him Dick. My friend invited another couple over as part of a dinner party. My friend was planning to serve wine but was told that Dick doesn't like wine and is a beer drinker.

My friend, not a beer drinker, bought a 6-pack of Heineken. He thought this was courteous.

But Dick wouldn't drink the Heineken. Instead, he gave my friend a lecture: how Heineken is a mass-produced international conglomerate product and shouldn't be supported, and how there are so many interesting locally made craft brews to choose from.

You may be thinking, "Blake Gray is Dick." Wouldn't be the first time. But no, I'm not a beer drinker. However, I totally understand Dick's position, and I have done nearly the same thing when offered uninteresting corporate wine in people's homes. I try to avoid being pedantic, the word my friend used to describe Dick.

To the non-oenophile, though, our love of wine is pretty much the same as pedantry. Same thing for beer enthusiasts.

I have a lot of experience being a snob, and I believe I have gotten reasonably good at, to quote my favorite line from the TV show "Justified," "putting the anus on myself." (It really is a better word than "onus" in this usage.) And I am content to drink water in situations where others have alcohol. But it's still not comfortable for either party, especially if somebody went out and bought something for me that they wouldn't ordinarily consume.

For my friend, what a nightmare! He said, "Dick was a guest in my home. He could have said thank you." Plus now he's stuck with a 6-pack of corporate horse piss. Wine and beer lovers, we're so damn picky. What if my friend goes out and buys a very highly rated wine that the store recommends as a crowd pleaser to serve to somebody like me?

Because my audience is wine lovers, there's not much point in me telling non-oenophile readers how to buy wine for wine snobs, but I will anyway: find the snobbiest wine shop in your town -- not Safeway or Trader Joe's, sorry -- and go tell the most judgmental hipster clerk that some really stuck-up wine snob is coming to your house and you want something he can't bitch about. Or, even better, tell your guests it's BYOB.

But for the oenophile guest, this is going to happen to me again, possibly in the very near future, so I'll take your advice. How do you react when somebody buys a dinner-party wine that you don't want to drink?

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

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Taste-testing Whole Foods' Chilean wines

Whole Foods sells a lot of wine. Last year, the supermarket chain held an 8-week promotion of Portuguese wine and sold 45,000 cases of it, according to Whole Foods wine buyer Doug Bell. This one event pushed up the overall sales of Portuguese wine in the US for those two months by 37%, Bell said.

This year, Whole Foods chose Chile for a promotion that's going on right now.

For Wines of Chile, it's a big success just to get in the promotion. With so many countries appealing for the attention of US consumers, it's easy for Chile to lose mindshare. Nielsen reported earlier this year that sales of Chilean wine were down 2% by volume in the grocery and drug stores it measures. Moreover, Chilean wines netted the second-lowest average price in supermarkets: $5.80 a bottle, ahead of only Australia ($4.87) and well below the average imported bottle price of $7.92.

Quality is not the problem. Chile makes affordable wine as well as any country in the world, or as Bell says, "with wines from Chile, you get a lot of bang for your buck, compared to wines from California." I visited some great wineries in Chile earlier this year and learned that the country also makes great sommelier-friendly wines of terroir. But what about grocery store wines? Whole Foods shoppers spend a little bit more than other supermarket consumers, but $12 to $20 is still their sweet spot.

I tasted the 8 wines in the Whole Foods promotion at home, with meals. The wines were provided by Wines of Chile. Perhaps because I am a dumbass, I didn't get paid by anybody to write this.

Afterwards, I called Bell to talk about them. Bell and I were on a wine trip together once, but we couldn't remember where. ("Was it Greece? South Africa? I remember we were in a van.")

Here are the 8 wines in my order of preference, along with a ringer in that price range I had sitting around. Some of them are available outside of Whole Foods but this is meant as as a guide for Whole Foods shoppers.


Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Wine Advocate set to release sake ratings

Big news for the sake industry: on Wednesday, the Wine Advocate will release 78 ratings of sakes on the 100-point scale.

Unusually, the ratings will be the result of a two-reviewer process, according to a Wine Advocate press release:

"Haruo Matsuzaki did a first selection of sakes among 800 polished, pure rice sakes. Martin Hao, Asian Wine Reviewer at Robert Parker Wine Advocate, then distinguished 78 great sakes, noted on a 50 to 100 points scale."

I want to see something get a 50! But seriously, this is most likely a very good thing for the sake industry in the same way that Robert Parker's ratings of California wines in the 1980s were good for the California wine industry. These ratings should get sake attention from an entirely new audience: an audience affluent enough to support the production of fine sakes.

It doesn't really matter what the taste standards are for the Advocate. Seriously: they could throw darts at a bunch of labels and give the ones they hit 98, and that would be fine. Top quality sakes are the most underappreciated alcoholic beverages in the world. Sake is so marginalized among alcoholic beverages that the Advocate's attention can't help but rise the overall tide. I don't care who the winners are in the Advocate's ratings. I only care that there are winners: that there aren't a bunch of 88s and 89s and a dearth of high scores. Advocate followers crave high scores, and I hope tomorrow they get some.

There is one aspect to the press release that merits some thought.

"In an independent and separate manner, Acker Merrall & Condit, the world's leading auction house for wines and spirits, will hold a special "sake sale" of some of the sakes distinguished by the WINE ADVOCATE in its New York branch in mid-October."

It's a new type of business arrangement, having a single store (especially that store) set to profit from Wine Advocate's ratings. But the impending ratings still seem likely to be good news for sake.

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

Monday, August 29, 2016

A dozen 90-point wines from Paso Robles

I bollixed this tasting before it started. I like writing theme tasting stories: great Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs, or Napa Valley Merlots. That's reader service. I wanted to do a story like that about Paso Robles wines. All I had to do was pick a grape.

But I failed. This story is like the replacement dinner you make when the dog grabs your steak off the grill. This is the upgraded-to-main-course pasta. I hope it's still pretty good. But as your chef, I apologize in advance.

Paso folks were coming to Oakland for a trade tasting. I asked if I could do a blind tasting in a separate room. Any media could join me. The wineries could have the bottles back afterward, so no waste of wine, which I always feel bad about. Jason Haas, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, said sure. All I had to do was pick a category.

I wasn't sure which wineries would be there and what their strengths are. So I made some proposals. Red Rhones other than Syrah; I think this is Paso's best category. But I hedged. I wondered how many good white Rhones they would have, and what kind of vintage it was for Zinfandel. I'm not a fan of the category Paso is always trying to push, Paso Cabs, but how to put that gently?

Well, I dropped the ball. I never made a demand, so I ended up with four mini categories, none with enough wines for its own story.

I got 41 wines total with an average price of $35. The highest price was $75; the lowest $14.99. And I got them in four categories: White Rhone varieties (8), Red Rhone varieties (10), Zinfandel (7), and Bordeaux Varieties (16).

Here are the best wines, not quite in order of preference, but I do start with my favorite. I have only published the wines I considered worth 90 points or more: 12 out of 41. That's good considering how unstructured my request for samples was. This isn't much of a story, but these are good wines.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

New TV show based on Rudy Kurniawan could be big for Bordeaux and all wine

John Cho
USA network, home of Mr. Robot, is developing a wine TV drama that sounds like a fictionalized version of Rudy Kurniawan's story.

Variety reported Wednesday that the show, tentatively titled "Connoisseur," will star John Cho (Sulu from the recent Star Trek movies) as "a brilliant con artist who dupes the wealthiest, most powerful people in the country into paying millions for fake wine, but his hustle forces him into a deadly bargain with an organized crime syndicate (and) puts him in the cross-hairs of the FBI."

Yep, that sounds like Rudy. Another online publication mistakenly made a comparison to the recent Premier Cru saga, but that was about undelivered wine, not fake wine. Gotta keep your wine scandals straight.

"Connoisseur" could be a very important program for fine wine, particularly for the top Bordeaux and Burgundy wines that Kurniawan counterfeited. The natural reaction of those wine producers may be to shudder ("Our wine is going to be shown as counterfeit goods?") but that would be misreading the history of wine in media.

Friday, August 19, 2016

A better cocktail shaker, thanks to another product's Kickstarter

The old and the new
We got a heavy metal cocktail shaker as a wedding present, because you know how important cocktails are to a marriage. I've been using it for years and we are still married, so it must be working.

Recently I was offered a chance to try the Shaker 33, which its makers tout as "the best cocktail shaker since Prohibition." It looks exactly like a wine-preservation canister I tried out three years ago called the Savino, and that's because it is essentially a repurposing of the design.

I didn't love the Savino, though people on Amazon seem to like it.* It didn't seem to preserve wine any better than just sticking a cork back in the bottle, or, even better, rescrewing the screwcap.

(* For people who think ratings are dead, this is the first sentence of the first Amazon Savino review: "My husband and I typically buy low-cost but highly rated wine, sometimes spending a lot but more often buying 88+ rated wines (Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator rated) that cost less than $12 at Costco.")

Founder Scott Tavenner got $85,005 to bring the Savino to life. For a small business, that's not too much to ask. He got another $30,844 to repurpose it into the Shaker 33. Again, not a hell of a lot of money in the scheme of things (though backers on the Facebook page are complaining that they don't yet have their shakers.)

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Fresno State can't keep wine professors

For decades California has had two great wine-teaching universities: UC Davis and Fresno State. Davis is more famous internationally because of its research program, but Fresno State has long been praised as a school with plenty of hands-on winemaking experience for students.

Now, however, Fresno State's Department of Viticulture and Enology is in turmoil.

James Kennedy, who had been chair of the department, left for a job with Constellation Brands last year, and the job has still not been filled though the university says on its website that it's now taking applications.

Kennedy, a California native and expert on tannin chemistry, came from the Australian Wine Research Institute after the previous chair, Robert Wample, left to be a viticulture consultant.

"It is heartbreaking," said a source with knowledge of the situation. "Jim Kennedy was an amazing catch for CSUF, and the regents failed to appreciate and empower him, driving him to the private sector same as his predecessor, Bob Wample."

Monday, August 8, 2016

Rombauer Chardonnay: Accept no imitation (though my friend Myles did)

From Replica Wines' website
Last month I wrote a story about Replica Wines, a Colorado company that claims to have reverse-engineered the formula for several popular wines.

Replica liked the story, apparently so much that you might see my verdict of the company's imitation of Kendall-Jackson Vintners Reserve Chardonnay on a shelf talker. (Read the story here.) The company wanted me to try its new imitation of Rombauer Chardonnay, called Retrofit, so it sent me the wine, along with a bottle of Rombauer.

I learned something about the way ordinary consumers buy wine, because there's an interesting twist after the blind taste test.

For Replica's versions of K-J and The Prisoner, I invited a professional food writer to blind taste with me. For Rombauer, I asked a friend who drinks wine but is a non-connoisseur: he doesn't know the grapes that go into Burgundy, for example. It seemed appropriate because Rombauer is one of the most beloved wines by non-connoisseurs.

I set up the tasting the same way as the previous blind taste-off.

Monday, August 1, 2016

From the CIA to Blue Nun: The life story of Peter Sichel

This is not Peter Sichel, not even in disguise
Peter Sichel's life is like a novel. It's like Forrest Gump if Gump were smart.

A German-born Jew who fled the Nazis, barely getting out of Vichy-era France, Sichel returned to Germany as a station head for the CIA. His espionage work led him to life as a pampered spy in Hong Kong before he gave up the spy biz because he didn't like what the CIA had evolved into.

Sichel's book, "The Secrets of My Life: Vintner, Prisoner, Soldier, Spy" is three-quarters done before he gets into the wine trade, but once there, it is also eventful. He entered a corrupt world of wine sales in New York and Bordeaux -- ironically, coming from the CIA, he comes off as a bit of a goody two-shoes -- before marketing the massive international success that still haunts German wine, Blue Nun.

It's a compelling autobiography, and it's also instructive for why so many wine books are boring.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Democrat or Republican? The politics of California wine country

Very few people in the wine business want to talk about politics. It's bad business, because they want to sell wine to both Republicans and Democrats.

I love to talk about politics, and I've been talking to people in California wine country for a long time. But I'm not about to bust anybody for conversations they may have thought were off the record. People could get fired if their name were to show up in a blog post supporting a candidate -- any candidate. I'm not Donald Trump; I don't wake up in the morning hoping to say, "You're fired."

So this post is about generalities, not specific people.


The wine industry cares more about immigration than most, and on the whole is very pro-immigration. The industry cares about environmental regulations, but there is no unified stance: plenty of people are disdainful of the government's ability to write sensible laws. Everybody would come together to fight more sin taxes on alcohol, but the powerful distribution arm of the wine industry likes red-tape regulations on distribution and sales, and so do some of the largest wineries because they realize it gives them an advantage.


The overwhelming majority of winemakers in California are Democrats. This makes sense, as they are scientists. Because of this, the media and to a lesser extent the public gets the sense that the California wine industry is strongly Democratic -- something Napa Valley Vintners would not like you to believe, as Republicans buy a lot of expensive Cabernet. In the media, we exalt winemakers, often too much (yes, me too.) Statistically, winemakers don't have that many votes, nor do they donate much money. Maybe the wine industry does lean Democratic, because California does in general, but it's not a landslide. Read on.


This is the most complicated and interesting category.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

How I order wine/How most people order wine

How I order wine:

First I try to determine how many bottles of wine we'll drink as a group. If it's just my wife and myself, it's either one bottle or wines by the glass. But in a group of four, it's probably at least two bottles, unless one of us is a teetotaller like the Republican Presidential ticket. In that case we just drink the Kool-Aid.

But seriously: when dining with most people, we get about one bottle per two diners. I don't think about ordering duplicate bottles unless it's a group of more than six.

I read the wine list and wait until the table has decided what food we're having. I ask for the sommelier. I wait 10 minutes. If it's any longer than that, I just order.

The sommelier arrives and says, "Do you have any questions about the wine list?" Every fucking time. Every single motherfucking time. But usually no, I don't have any questions about the wine list. I mean, I'd like to know what your markup is. Maybe what font it's printed in. Did you type it yourself or cut and paste? Maybe in sommelier school they tell them to open with that inane question. Am I missing something? Do lots of people have questions about the wine list? Like, "What was your inspiration for the Pinot Grigios on page 3?"

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Wine-pairing challenge: Chicago dogs

I don't usually like absurd food-wine pairing stories (what wine goes with ramen? what wine goes with Swedish fish?) but this actually happened this week: I was offered a wine-pairing challenge, and I accepted.

My friend Liz lives in Oakland near Berkeley. But she sides with the Berkeleyites: she doesn't have a TV. And naturally she's not from Berkeley; nobody is. She's a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, which means this is her best year ever.

Seriously, Cubs fans, who even needs television? Since its debut at the 1939 New York World's Fair, television has not shown the Cubs celebrating a championship. Bad TV! In fact, radio, which goes back to 1916, hasn't handled one either. The last Cubs title was announced, literally, by men climbing tall buildings holding signs.

But Liz wanted a TV this week because she wanted to watch the All-Star Game, with the National League fielding an all-Cubs infield. Rather than fly to San Diego, which she considered, or buy a set and hook it up to Dish Network, she opted for the cheaper alternative of coming to my house with a Chicago dog assembly kit she ordered from Vienna Beef in Chicago.

An ordinary hot dog is not a difficult wine pairing. It's sausage: wine goes with sausage. Mustard and onions, no problem. (Adults should not put ketchup on a hot dog.) Cheese and chili, fine. Sauerkraut -- I was recently in Alsace, we can work with that.

But a Chicago dog is a Level 5 Wine Pairing Catastrophe.

Monday, July 11, 2016

New Lewis-Clark Valley AVA in Idaho and Washington: A voyage of discovery

Frost-damaged vineyard in the middle of a wheat field under the big sky in Idaho's Lewis-Clark Valley
I had two invitations in late June. I could go to Italy to taste wines from a couple regions I really enjoy. Or I could go to northwest Idaho to visit a brand-new AVA and taste wines from just five wineries, none with any tradition.

Naturally I picked Idaho. Mi dispiace, Italia!

I have a fascination with Idaho wines. The climate and soils are, in many places, similar to Washington wine country: conducive to good grape growing. Global warming might reduce the frost risk, the biggest hazard in Idaho. There's little wine culture yet, but it's one of the most promising states for the future.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

10 questions to ask about any wine appellation

Last weekend I had an email from a longtime correspondent who asked, for unstated reasons of his own, what 10 important questions I would ask about any wine appellation, and what one question is unimportant.

My first response: now there's a blog post. Visiting appellations and trying to tell their stories is the second best part of writing about wine. (No. 1: drinking all the great wine.) But I had never codified exactly what I'm looking for. So here goes.

1. History

The key to the narrative in most good appellation stories.

2. Climate

Not only does it tell a significant part of the story, it's also an easy part of the story to retell. "Cool summer nights enable the grapes to retain their acidity," for example.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

"The Spirituality of Wine": a thoughtful, moving book

When Jesus performed his first miracle, he didn't multiply the loaves and fishes to feed 5000 hungry people. He didn't heal the sick or raise a man from the dead.

Jesus was at a wedding feast in Cana where the hosts ran out of wine. The guests must have been buzzed, as they'd consumed all the wine in the house already. Jesus could have just gone home and let the party break up. Instead, he transformed water into wine, and not just any old plonk, but excellent wine. "It was of such high quality that the sommelier responsible for wine at that that party commented to the groom about its quality -- completely astonished by it," writes Gisela H. Kreglinger, in her new book "The Spirituality of Wine."

Kreglinger returns repeatedly to the story of the feast of Cana in her thoughtful book, which I, an unbeliever, guzzled like a man thirsting for meaning. Kreglinger, a native of Germany's Franconia wine region, was raised in a family of vintners, holds a PhD in historical theology and taught Christian spirituality for four years. Her book weaves together many issues of the modern wine world, debates you will recognize, with the wisdom of the past.

I began reading it to learn more about wine in the Bible, but I ended up feeling inspired, thirsty for a glass of wine that represents a vintner's commitment to the land. (I slaked that with one of Grant Burge's single-vineyard Shirazes from Barossa Valley, proving that God does work in mysterious ways.)

What the miracle of Cana teaches us is the Bible's most important lesson about wine, yet one that too many American Christian sects have forgotten: wine is supposed to make us joyful. It is God's gift for our happiness. Kreglinger writes, "Wine is a gift from God and enhances our festive play before God. The accusation that Christians have no joy is a terrible one because joy should lie at the heart of the Christian life."

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Noncontroversial wine stories! (Unless you're Riedel)

Hey folks, would you give me a nickel? I promise I won't spend it on drugs.

I have written several columns for Wine Fix, a website for wine beginners. They're all outstanding examples of the dying use of words to say things (when am I going to learn to write a wine column in emoji?) And I get a nickel for every click.

Here are the links and some of the sentences you won't find when you read the columns:

A Crash Course in Dessert Wines

Whether you're trying to forcefeed a diabetic spouse you've tired of, or simply want a sweet ending to a meal, here's what you need to know!

How Many Types of Wine Glasses Do You Really Need?

Do you know how many pairs of eyeglasses I have? I know what you're thinking, punk, did he have six pairs of eyeglasses or only five. Well let me tell you I don't remember myself. But seeing as this is a 44 Magnum, the most powerful gun in the world ... oh, sorry, wrong movie. You know those Riedel people? Fun is made of them here. I also use the word "Poppycock."

Screwcaps vs. Corks: What's the Deal?

The first comment on this post is very flattering. Have you written anything nice on a blog post lately? No? Well you don't have to on this one, because it's already there.

11 Expensive Wine Myths Debunked

Now that I look at the title, are these expensive myths, or myths about expensive wines? Either makes sense. If I could get this column in front of wine beginners I'd be really happy, but again, it's all written in words so nobody in the year 2050 will be able to read it. Unhappy face.

Click on all 4 and I get 20 cents! Tell your friends! My auto insurance payment is due. Thanks!

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

Monday, June 13, 2016

Tasting Columbia Crest's Crowd Sourced Cabernet

You get a vote, and you get a vote ... photo courtesy KQED
I've only liked 4 of the last 12 highest-grossing films of the year. I have never owned the top selling album of any of the last 35 years. So I'm not a great candidate to enjoy a Crowd Sourced Cabernet.

But I was interested in Columbia Crest's crowd-sourced winemaking project: not only to write a story about it two years ago, but also to be a voter in the crowd.

A brief description: Columbia Crest devoted an acre of good Cabernet vines in Washington's Horse Heaven Hills and allowed ordinary people to vote on viticultural and winemaking decisions. It's a great way to get people to feel involved in the project. What voter wouldn't be curious about how the final product tastes? I went to a Kickstarter-funded movie last week and people in the audience cheered during the credits when they saw their name roll by, and they didn't even get to help make edits.

None of the wine votes that I took part in went my way, of course.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Sushi's essence understood at Ju-ni in San Francisco

My wife and I met when I lived in Tokyo. We don't eat out for Japanese food as much as we'd like to. I'm sure natives of most countries say something like this about reinterpretations of their country's cuisine, but as my wife likes to say, "vegan sushi is not sushi."

We have to give props to Ju-ni, a new sushi restaurant in San Francisco that has a good concept, well executed. "Ju-ni" means 12. The restaurant has only 12 counter seats, with three chefs who each serve four customers. There are only two seatings, at 6 pm and 8:30 pm. And it offers only one meal, a 12-course o-makase ("chef's choice") menu for $90.

If it weren't for these restrictions, I wouldn't post this, because we don't want to help make the place impossible to get into. But you, dear reader, should take the opportunity, because this is excellent sushi in a way that is very American while also respecting the essence of Japanese sushi.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

How my wine knowledge led to sex (but not for me)

"Dial a wine snob. Your question please?"
"Blake, you gotta help me. I'm calling from ABC. I need a wine. I'm having dinner with (woman's name) and she likes Merlot."

The caller was a longtime friend who has never been an enophile and is now, I thought, exclusively a white wine drinker. But sex is a powerful motivator. My friend, recently separated, hasn't been in the dating game for a while, and consequently is ... well, you get the picture.

The first thing I said was, "Merlot? Are you sure you want to have sex with this woman?" He was. So I asked him to read me the labels of the wines in the Merlot aisle.

This made me feel like the wine snob I am. ABC is a chain store in Florida, and not a particularly good one for wine. I once stopped in an ABC in Apopka to get a bottle to go with pork ribs and was paralyzed by indecision for nearly 20 minutes because the whole store had nothing I wanted to drink. I ended up with a mass-produced Rioja crianza which was nearly flavorless but inoffensive. But I didn't need to get laid.