Thursday, May 26, 2016

How not to run a wine panel: Saying nothing at the International Chardonnay Symposium

"What was the question again?" Also, that's not actually Larry Hyde; it's his son Chris
I want to support the International Chardonnay Symposium. California has at least eight annual major Pinot Noir gatherings, but only this one on Chardonnay. Yet Chardonnay is California's most planted grape and its most sold wine, plus I think cool-climate Chardonnay is one of the most exciting wines being made here.

I want to support the Chardonnay symposium, but I'm going to get meta here: I attended two of the most worthless wine panels of my life.

This is not to say that there aren't, at every symposium, worthless panels. There's the ever-popular "pairing wine with cheese" panel, which is usually just an excuse to drink good wine and eat (hopefully) good cheese. That's fine; I'm not talking about that. And I'm not talking about weekend consumer-focused panels (great Russian River Zinfandels!) that the media has no business attending. I'm talking about weekday panels with an interesting-sounding topic that come off so poorly that you learn nothing at all.

Now, I've moderated some wine panels and people who were in the audience at those can jump in here if you like. But I like to think that when I run a panel, that panel will say something.

Here are the two panels I attended: "Wente Clone Comparative Tasting," and "Taste the Difference: Exploring California's Distinct Chardonnay Regions."

Both of those sound like they will provide information, right? Like, one could learn something about what the Wente clone tastes like, or how it is treated by different vintners. And that second one sounds like a surefire blog post at least: Santa Barbara County Chardonnay tastes like this, while Carneros Chardonnay tastes like that.

Instead, we were treated at each seminar to lecturing on how nobody can say anything definitive about either topic. In that case, what is the point of having a seminar?

Monday, May 23, 2016

Endorsements for San Francisco, June 2016 Democratic primary election

Your next Senator ... and next Democratic President? Kamala Harris
It's a tradition here to offer election endorsements. We should all talk more about politics, and I don't mean shout at each other like sports fans.

I'm pleased that San Francisco's liberal alternative paper the Bay Guardian has come back from the dead online to offer endorsements. As when it was in print, the Guardian has done the most work locally of interviewing candidates and investigating propositions. I may not always (or even often) agree with the Guardian's politics but I am grateful for the effort of Tim Redmond, who was editor for more than 30 years and is back on the endorsement job in 2016. The San Francisco Chronicle, despite its much greater resources and more centrist politics, has never taken endorsements as seriously and can't always be trusted to have thought things through fully, but nonetheless my former employer's positions always influence my own. And as always I am grateful for the neutral site Smart Voter.

Having given credit where it's due, here are my endorsements.

US Senator: Kamala Harris

Don't be surprised if Kamala Harris, currently California Attorney General, runs for President soon, perhaps as soon as 2020 if the Democrats don't win this time. She's a protege of Barack Obama and like him is ambitious as all hell. That, frankly, is a selling point in voting for her as US Senator, because to be a Democratic Senator from California has become a lifetime appointment. Perhaps voters would have more carefully considered Dianne Feinstein the first time if they realized she could never be turned out of office. And Feinstein is still there, increasingly embarrassingly; this open seat is to replace retiring Barbara Boxer.

With that caution, Harris is the best candidate for this office on this ballot: she's smart, charismatic and has amassed good experience in a relatively short time. But will we get 30 years of her, or only 4? I wonder what Obama's former constituents in Illinois thought of him as a Senator?

Friday, May 20, 2016

What I like and dislike about Donald Trump

Before every election I post endorsements in every race local to me, in San Francisco, for a number of reasons.** The least important endorsements are the headline-getters. I do the endorsements to talk about the ballot propositions and local candidates who don't get enough scrutiny. I don't even need to make a Presidential endorsement, and I doubt that I will sway one voter by doing so.

** People should talk more about politics; extremist opinions flourish in the dark absence of discussion. Also, local newspapers don't do the job they used to of examining the issues and politicians in detail.

Unfortunately, just as he has on television, Donald Trump will attract all the attention away from all my other endorsements. It doesn't matter what I think about him, but people ask me all the time anyway. I began writing this post at an international wine competition in Europe where a dozen people asked me about him. I finished two weeks ago and have been sitting on it, picturing my many liberal friends with pitchforks and torches. But the time has come next week to do my other endorsements and I need to get this out of the way first.

So here is what I like and dislike about Donald Trump.

I have really enjoyed Trump's entry into the Presidential race, especially in the early stages. 

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Grower Champagne is highly overrated

Big tanks of Champagne at Nicolas Feuillatte. Big tanks might not sound sexy, but often they're better
Grower Champagne might be, as a category, the most overrated wine in the world today.

This was one of several observations from three days of judging at this year's Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, the world's largest wine competition.

More than 8000 wines were submitted this year and each panel tastes only 150, so for any individual judge it's an ant's view of the forest. The competition was held in Bulgaria, but my panel got no Bulgarian wines. Mexican wines did well at the Concours this year, but we got none.

At this competition, you know the vintage of each wine you taste, but nothing else, so when you get a group of red wines, you don't know if they're from France, Greece, Chile or wherever. Often we guess based on the flavor profile, but we don't know until the end of the day's judging, long after we have turned in our scores, if we were right.

On our first day, we got a flight of 12 sparkling wines. Many were frothy and a little sweet and I was sure they were Prosecco or some imitation. Our panel chairman suggested that they might be Champagne, but we didn't believe him: Champagne has more body than this, more texture, more complexity. It doesn't taste this cheap. And considering what Champagne vintners charge, it shouldn't taste cheap.

How weak was this flight? I have defended Prosecco in past competitions because I don't think people are looking for complexity from it. But I gave no medal-equivalent scores to these bubblies, and neither did my panel. I've never had a flight of Proseccos that got no medals.

You know where this is going: these were 12 grower Champagnes.

Monday, May 9, 2016

12 things I learned about Bulgarian wine and food

Bulgaria has been in the European Union for 9 years but it might be the most obscure member to Americans. It's a little bigger in size than Ohio and its population of 7 million is about the same as the state of Washington. Unlike those states, it has a 24-hour folk dancing TV network, as well as separate TV networks for pop songs: one for men posturing in leather, another for women in constant motion like wacky waving inflatable arm-flailing tubemen.

If you want to compare it to EU states, Hungary is the closest match in size and population. The only Bulgarians I had heard of before visiting were Christo the artist/opportunist and bad-tempered soccer star Hristo Stoichkov.

I spent a week in Bulgaria recently, first as a judge at the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, the world's largest wine competition, and then on a short and uninformative wine tour that took us to just two large industrial wineries in two long days (we also saw a monastery and a rose oil factory). So even by the standards of blogging, I don't know a hell of a lot about Bulgaria. But the odds are extremely good that, except for Ms. Nelly Nedeva reading this in Plovdiv, I know more than you. So here's what I know.

1. Bulgaria claims to have been the world's second-largest wine producer in the 1980s. Can you imagine? It's the size of Ohio and it made more wine than Spain, Italy or the US? In the Soviet era Bulgaria was tasked with providing wine, leading to some enormous wine factories where some of the equipment is still in use. Production dropped off a cliff after the end of Communism, but is rapidly rising, up more than 50% between 2011 and 2014, according to the Wine Institute. But still Bulgaria is now only 21st in the world, just behind Ukraine.

2. Like production, wine consumption is skyrocketing in Bulgaria, doubling in just three years from 2011 to 2014, according to the Wine Institute. At 20.6 liters per capita, it's still on the low end for a European wine producing country, a little less than Spain and New Zealand, but Bulgarians drink twice as much wine per capita as the US.