Monday, February 29, 2016

Global warming in Napa Valley: Earliest bud break ever?

Bud break at Muir-Hanna in Napa Valley
With yet another warm February in California, many grapevines in Napa Valley awoke in the past week from a short nap and sent their first buds out into the world.

"Buds on Chardonnay have begun swelling and bursting on a few vines," Brittany Pederson, viticulturist at Silverado Farming Company said in a press release. "With this warm weather and no real rain or cold weather in the near forecast, it shouldn’t be long before everything takes off."

Matt Reid, winemaker at Benessere Vineyards, said, "I’d say we’re a good week to 10 days ahead of last year and about 17-21 days ahead of normal.”

In years past, farmers would fret about bud break so early because the young buds are vulnerable to frost. A single night with temperatures below freezing could be enough to damage an entire year's crop (though not the grapevine itself.)

But lately, frost seems a thing of the past. Global warming in California seems to have as much an impact on warming winters as in heating up summers. I don't know about you, but I spent much of February in t-shirts and shorts.

Not only that, there is no region in the world better prepared for frost that no longer comes than Napa Valley. When grapes are that valuable, it makes sense to buy equipment to protect them.

So what does early bud break mean for the eventual wines?

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Sommelier is constipated: true Internet profiles

Sommelier Kobayashi has been constipated since 2012!
Isetan in Shinjuku has the best food basement of any Tokyo department store, and likely the best in Japan. Seriously. So naturally Isetan takes its wine store seriously enough to have online profiles of its in-house sommeliers, with English translations.

But those profiles ... I'm posting screen grabs because it's possible they'll be taken down after this blog post. Even in Japanese, who thought that telling us about Kobayashi's, er, elimination regime was a good idea?

We controlled with essential oil and Medicinal Herb tea to drink last year and did not drink so-called "medicine", but were made to use steroid from early March because we pulled mind this year and played truant.

Uh, yeah. Another great line from a different sommelier's profile: "We look unreliable, but are a mother of 1 child even if we see in this way." Ohkaaay.

There isn't much I can add to these delightful sommelier profiles. It is every day when we reflect we are impressed by profundity of wine, so please to enjoy and comment with responsible.

A hat tip to my friend Glenn for pointing this out. Let's proceed to live karaoke appreciation but not readily improve!

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

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Should wine lovers care about California's Central Valley?

California's hot, fertile San Joaquin Valley has been the center of its wine industry since Prohibition. But nothing has gone well for grape growers there for several years. With the drought and an ongoing decline in the market for wines under $9, the future of cheap California-appellation wine seems in doubt.

As wine drinkers, should we care?

It's a loaded question, and one I thought about after reading a New York Post story headlined "Millennials are ruining the American wine industry." I covered the same industry speech as the Post for Wine Searcher with a story titled, "Fine Wine Consumption Set to Soar in the U.S."

I am not here to criticize the Post's story; I enjoy the Post's proletarian food coverage. We looked at the same wine industry report from different angles, and the assumption in my Wine Searcher story is that fine wine lovers do not care about the San Joaquin Valley. I feel pretty confident that's true.

My enophile friends turn up their nose at California appellation wines. Charles Shaw may have reached 1 billion bottles, but I don't believe people buy it because it tastes like California. If it said Chile on the label, I don't believe its customers would blink.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

$15 coffee tasting on TV: Same snobs, different drink

Recently a San Francisco coffee shop added a $15 cup of coffee to its menu. The price actually somewhat reflects the cost of production, as the beans come from a small-crop variety (Gesha) that took eight years to produce beans in its newest planting. (Though if winery owners were to try to recoup their costs back on the first harvest from newly planted vineyards ...)

The idea of a $15 cup of coffee attracted the proletarian drink snobs we see in the wine world.

Snobbery is snobbery: to say that no cup of coffee could possibly be worth $15 is no different from saying no glass of wine could be worth $30, or conversely that there is no good wine in a box. In fact, you'll find the same people saying both: there's no way a bottle of wine could be worth $100 AND box wine is beneath them.

Check out the video of the local Fox news team doing a blind taste test of the coffee. It reminds me so much of wine haters.

Two of the three skeptical talking heads can actually pick out the expensive coffee blind -- but one is so invested in his proletarian snob stance that he immediately says he identified the $15 coffee "because I didn't like it." Yeah sure, buddy.

I don't have a position on the value of the Finca Sophia coffee because I haven't tasted it. My own palate is not that of a coffee expert: I like a darker roast, whereas aficionados prefer a lighter roast to taste nuances. So I'm not sure I'm the target audience, though I have spent 10 times the going rate to try civet coffee.

I'll bet most people who bought the coffee did so because it cost more than others, and this is true in wine as well: Cristal may be good Champagne, and Screaming Eagle may be good Cabernet, but that's not why people buy them. And that's fine. It's their money. Snobbery is snobbery, regardless of which side of the spending divide you look down on.

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

Friday, February 12, 2016

My Month of Malbec, the diary III: Return of the Malbec

More Malbec? From Ushuaia prison museum
I spent most of December on vacation in Antarctica and Argentina and kept a wine diary. This is the final chapter; chapter 1 is here.

Buenos Aires and Malbec at last!

To have another go at a Buenos Aires steak, we head to La Cabrera, which is also in the Top 50 Restaurants in Latin America. I decide to try a famous cut and get "ojo de bife" -- ribeye. My wife wants tenderloin. We order fried potatoes and, craving fresh greens which were rare in Ushuaia, an arugula salad.

La Cabrera's wine list is shorter than Don Julio's. There are only two white wines, both Chardonnays, which seems surprising for a place where one can order chicken. But, see the previous diary entry: people drink Malbec with anything here. The list is about 70% Malbec, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and a few blends and other varieties.

I tell the server that I like more elegant wines, less powerful, and I'm not a huge Malbec fan, but I wouldn't mind a Malbec blend. He's sympathetic but guides me toward wines he likes because "it's strong, very strong." Flying semi-blind, I order Rutini Cabernet Sauvignon-Malbec ($35), 50% of each, 14.1% alcohol. It's surprisingly high in acid and I think it must be acidified; it's racy and a little vegetal. I'm not in love with it until the food comes. But when that happens, it's like Pharoah being served.

Monday, February 8, 2016

My Month of Malbec, the diary, part II: Antarctica ho!

I spent most of December in Argentina and Antarctica on vacation, and kept a wine diary. This is part II, and a great excuse for me to run some Antarctica photos. Part I is here.

Day 6: The shopping trip -- 7 wines for $58

Despite my happy experience with $3 Etchart Privado Torront├ęs, I don't set out to buy only cheap wines to take to Antarctica. It just ends up that way.

I have several organizing principles, based on belief and/or experience:

* Experience: I usually like cheap Argentine Malbecs better than expensive ones
* Belief: More expensive Malbecs not only come from riper grapes; they also spend more time in new oak barrels
* Experience: In blind tastings, I often prefer the wine with the lowest or second-lowest alcohol percentage
* Belief: I like elegance and dislike power
* Belief: I didn't come to Argentina to drink varieties I see every day in California

Thursday, February 4, 2016

CDC to women: Have sex or wine. Not both

Sex or wine? Women have to choose
Women, how would you most like to spend your 20s and 30s: drinking wine, or having sex at least occasionally? You have to choose, according to the CDC.

The Centers for Disease Control released a report this week with the following jaw-dropping language:
Healthcare providers should ... advise (women) not to drink at all if she is pregnant, trying to get pregnant, sexually active, and not using birth control.
I'm a guy, so maybe I'm not seeing this the right way. In my 20s I wasn't always sure when I was sexually active.

Monday, February 1, 2016

My Month of Malbec: The Diary

A month of Malbec? Really?
My wife made the decision; it is her fault that I must drink mostly Malbec for a month. I visit Europe all the time as the essential perk of writing about wine. She only gets one vacation per year. So while we both kick out options for our annual vacation together, she gets to decide.

Antarctica has been on our list for years. We want to see the last unspoiled place on Earth: a vista of nothing but white, blue and black. This year, we are feeling more mortal. Visiting Antarctica has the feel of "we've done that, now I can be hit by a bus." To get to Antarctica, we would go through Argentina, and would spend an extra week there. Going to Argentina means drinking Malbec.

I don't hate Malbec. I don't hate it the way I hate an ear infection or the New York Yankees. I just never order it. There are vegetables I dislike -- Brussels sprouts, cauliflower -- that I order several times a year because the preparation sounds interesting. There are foods I dislike intensely -- blood sausage -- that I try because somebody at the table tells me I might like this blood sausage. I've trained myself to like previously abhorrent foods like natto, though I'm still not there on squid guts.

But Malbec, I cannot remember the last time I ordered it. I don't mean months or even years. It is possible that I have never in my life ordered Malbec. I have tasted it, many times. I have reviewed it. I have even drunk it, when somebody else ordered it.

There are wines I actively dislike: Pinotage. Buttery Chardonnay. Malbec just bores me. I believe any producer that can make a good Malbec can make something else better.

But we're going to Malbec country, so I will drink Malbec. I did a column for Palate Press with my bullet-point observations of Argentina's wine scene as a tourist, which are a helluva lot different -- and more "normal" -- than what you see on a press trip. This is my daily wine diary from the trip. We ate at four of the alleged top 50 restaurants in Latin America. There will be steaks, penguins, and a confrontation at The Wine Shop at the End of the World. And there are pretty pictures, though by popular demand I left out the ones of me in a hot tub. I actually wrote about 8000 words and this will be about 2/3 of that, so yes, it's edited, but it's a long diary. But what are blogs for?