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?

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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.