Wednesday, March 30, 2016

TTB responds to open letter on alcohol levels in wine

In January I posted an open letter to the Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau, asking the agency to require wineries to give more accurate information to consumers about alcohol percentage.

U.S. law allows inaccurate label information about alcohol that would be illegal in most of the world. I argued that the U.S. wine industry is deliberately and systematically understating the amount of alcohol in wine, and U.S. law is allowing it to happen. You can read the letter here.

I sent the letter to the TTB on its site, and this morning I got a response! I had to create a secure TTB email account because the response is encrypted. How exciting! I am the recipient of important government information! Maybe the TTB is looking at my argument and wants to hear more? Or maybe it will just thank me for my input?

Here is the entirety of what a TTB Technical Advisor wrote. My entire email was included in the body of the email below it; I have truncated that part because you can read it elsewhere.

THAT took two and a half months to write?

OK, fine, I sent the same letter to the address listed in the secure, encrypted email. Let's follow the U.S. Government in action!

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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The British (bubblies) are coming! Should you believe the hype?

Please don't Tea Party our wine! (photo courtesy Brian J. Cantwell/Seattle Times)
There are a lot of British wine writers and not a lot of British wines. So British sparkling wines have had a ton(ne) of loving coverage in a language closely related to ours.

The question those of us across the pond have wondered is, how good are these wines?

British sparkling wines have been harder to get in California than Croatian Teran, which has been on the wine list in at least three restaurants in my neighborhood. I think I had a sip of Nyetimber -- that's one of the better-known British sparkling wines -- out of a coffee mug in another writer's room somewhere in Europe once, but I don't really remember it.

So I did not pretend to have a stiff upper lip when offered the opportunity to taste the first two bubblies that England is exporting to our shores. Send 'em! A legend come alive: It will be like tasting the Loch Ness Monster!

Yet I was a little nervous. What if, after every British authority assured us they are as good as Champagne except they're better and they're British, I didn't like these wines? Would I get bitch-slapped by Jamie Goode? Would Jancis Robinson, the world's best spitter, put Montrachet in my eye from sniper's distance?

Friday, March 25, 2016

Double Barrel wine, aged in used whiskey barrels

Wine, it turns out, can be bi-curious. Australia's Jacob's Creek winery is making wine aged in whiskey barrels, and not just a few bottles either: 45,000 cases total of three varieties.

While it seems like a stunt for the U.S. millennial market -- every year, the Wine Market Council shows a slide of spirits hybrids (like Malibu Red rum/tequila) that appeal to young adventure seekers -- most Jacob's Creek Double Barrel is being sold domestically Down Under. Right now Jacob's Creek is only bringing in to the U.S. 1000 cases of two types, an Irish Whiskey-aged Cabernet and a Scotch-aged Shiraz.

They don't taste like one expects: they don't taste like whiskey, nor do they taste strongly of oak-added flavors like vanilla or coconut, despite the "Double Barrel" production method. In part, this is because the barrels are "very used" when Jacob's Creek gets them from other members of the Pernod Ricard portfolio like Chivas and Jameson, says chief winemaker Ben Bryant.

"The barrels are falling apart when we receive them," Bryant says. "We have to knock them back together."

But the Cab at least smells ... unusual.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Don't attack Trump Wine

The media has begun scrambling to attack Trump wine. It seems like an easy target: the blowhard pastes his name on wine labels and brags about how great the wine is. Even President Obama jumped in the game, saying, "I want to know what that wine tastes like," before calling it a $5 wine in a $50 bottle.

There are a number of problems with this coverage, not least that some of the criticisms people are leveling at Trump wine could apply to maybe half the wineries in America. I'll get to my main objection to the coverage below. But first, here's a quick primer about what we know to be true about Trump winery:

* Trump bought the Kluge Estate winery in 2011 at a foreclosure auction for $6.2 million, far less than its appraised value.

* Trump says he doesn't drink and put his son in charge of running it. He did immediately put his last name on it.

* There were huge business mistakes in creating this winery, but they were made by the Kluges. They're familiar mistakes in the wine industry: somebody really wanted to make great wines like the ones they like to drink, so they jumped all in, spare no expense, without asking whether it was even possible. Patricia Kluge chose the site more for its beauty and location than its viticultural potential, planted the wrong grapes for the site, and spent too much on the facilities before she had a sales plan. She absorbed the losses and Trump was buying a distressed property at a great discount, which is what real-estate people do.

Monday, March 14, 2016

What does "value" in wine mean to you?

Eric Asimov wrote last week about a New York merchant who sells wines aged in his company's cellar, something you see on the East Coast but not so much in California.

Asimov said the cafe and wine bar "offers many great values" and then listed six wines. Two were $60, but the rest were $190 to $295.

Naturally the comments on the story are negative. Of course they are. But they're not as reflexively negative as you might expect, as many show knowledge of wine.

Anne wrote, "Most helpful ... where to buy wines for the 1 percent." (Sarcastic, but statistically I'll bet it's true: I'll bet less than 1% of Americans buy $200 wines.) Ed wrote, "$250 for a Chianti?! Please tell me it's a misprint. No Italian would ever believe it."

I wondered about that wine also. I like Chianti Classico a lot but Ed is right, I can't imagine spending that much for one, in Italy or in San Francisco, even for a 21-year-old wine. The Chianti Classico in question is a 1995 riserva from a winery I don't know, so I went to Wine Searcher to look it up and discovered I can buy that same bottle for prices ranging from $153 to $200 from retail stores (not including shipping).

So is that wine good value?

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Finding good wines from California's Central Valley

Desert Five-Spot in Death Valley: a wine analogy
Recently I wrote that San Joaquin Valley -- source of most of the wine made in North America -- makes nothing of interest for wine lovers. That I knew of.

A few days later, I heard about the Superbloom in Death Valley, a rare event when wildflowers that lay dormant for years suddenly burst into life after a rainy winter. Because California has been in a 4-year drought, last winter's rains awakened enough seeds to make it the largest Superbloom since 2005. I love Death Valley and had never seen the wildflowers, so my wife and I grabbed the last available hotel room all month. Then I looked at a map and realized, hey, San Joaquin Valley is on the way.

So I contacted Ray Krause, one of the San Joaquin Valley winemakers who dissented on my negative blog post, and asked if we could visit and taste some wines. Not only was Ray willing to give up his Saturday to host me; with practically no notice, he rounded up a few other winemakers so I could taste the artisanal side of San Joaquin Valley wines.

Fields of poppies in the Death Valley Superbloom. This drive was superb. The drive to San Joaquin Valley ...
The drive was pleasant enough -- actually that's a lie, State Route 99 is an ugly highway with billboards for pesticides and for how you're going to Hell, in some cases if you get an abortion and in other cases just on general principle. Along the highway we passed some enormous industrial vineyards. We thought we would stop for lunch before we got to Ray's winery, Westbook Wine Farm, but we passed up the chance to eat at Denny's or Sonic or the gas station after the exit ramp and then for many miles there weren't any restaurants or taco trucks or anything (thankfully we had a full tank). In the place where America gets its bagged salads and almonds and fruits of all kinds, it's surprisingly hard to buy lunch.

So we got to Westbrook an hour early, no lunch, and only at this point did I consider: there's going to be a group of winemakers here, and I just dissed their whole region. And I'm out here in the middle of nowhere and the only people who knew I came here are my wife, who's with me, and these winemakers. Here are my 8 favorite movies that remind me of this scenario:

2000 Maniacs

Cabin in the Woods

Creepshow 2 ("The Raft")


Evil Dead II


Joy Ride

Texas Chainsaw Massacre

So how did it turn out?

Monday, March 7, 2016

Grocery store Chardonnay reviewed in the year's best wine blog post

Richard Jennings blogs as RJ on Wine
Richard Jennings spent $4000 of his own money to review 230 grocery store Chardonnays on his blog. I feel confident even in early March calling it "the year's best wine blog post" because I don't remember the last time I read a better one.

Jennings, whose day job is as HR director for a large mental health agency, is one of the most profilic reviewers of wine, with 44,000 tasting notes on Cellar Tracker. He previously wrote a weekly column for the assholes at Huffington Post (pay for content, you parasites), but stepped away from blogging last year because his schedule was so full. He hadn't posted in more than six months, and that post was to apologize for not posting in three months.

When he returned to blogging, he did so with the type of public-service journalism that doesn't exist in wine writing anymore.

Sales numbers show Chardonnay is still easily America's favorite wine. Many Americans buy their wines in grocery stores, despite the best effort of writers (including Jennings) to dissuade them. Grocery store Chardonnay is what America actually drinks.

But publications, editors more so than writers, turn up their noses at grocery store Chardonnay. (I have tried soooo many times to sell Chardonnay stories.) Eric Asimov of the New York Times is the nation's leading public-service wine journalist; there's no close second. Yet I don't think you could get Asimov to taste grocery store Chardonays with handcuffs and a funnel.

I used to work for a newspaper that did this sort of story, and I was proud of that, but they don't do these stories anymore; nobody does. Instead, we write love sonnets about $60 wines of which only 150 cases were made. The one magazine that might do this sort of public-service story is Wine Spectator. If they do, I will applaud them, but it's more helpful to more consumers to see ratings and tasting notes (on every wine, good and bad!) from a writer who doesn't reward only overblown wines.

Jennings made a lot of interesting observations about grocery store Chardonnay in the piece, which I won't steal from him here: you'll have to read them on his site. I was so impressed by Jennings' work that I called him to interview him about it.

Me: My God Richard, you spent $4000 of your own money? Are you sure working in mental health hasn't affected your mental health?

RJ: Yeah, pretty crazy, and I hadn't planned to originally. I wasn't great about pricing things out. But once I got into it, it was an interesting project and I wanted to continue.

Me: Where did you get the funds for these Chardonnays that you weren't even going to drink?