Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Robot Chicken vs. white wine (if you like being offended, Merry Christmas!)

I can't believe it took me five years to see Robot Chicken take on white wine. What was I doing with my life?

Better late than never. If I hadn't seen it, maybe you haven't either. Presented without permission from Cartoon Network or the creators of the stop-action animated show, here are the three "White Wine" vignettes from the Robot Chicken episode "Hurtled from a Helicopter into a Speeding Train," which first aired in 2012.

They are best enjoyed in order. On the show -- which is always a series of smartass vignettes -- they appear in this order, broken up by other short visual jokes.

And then ...

And finally ...

I should probably defend white wine and express my shock and outrage but, well, fuck it. Robot Chicken rules. Honey, would you pass the white wine?

If you want to see more, here's Robot Chicken's official site.

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

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

I told a winemaker his wine has too much alcohol -- without tasting it

This post is a confession. I had an uncomfortable email exchange last weekend, so naturally I'm sharing it with the wider wine world. I know a number of winemakers will read this and they won't like it. I'm not sure I handled it correctly. Should I have said anything? You be the judge.

UPDATE: I had a pleasant phone conversation with the winemaker about this wine, and I have added his comments at the end of the post.

First, I got a press release from a California winery that is releasing a single-variety wine of a grape I hadn't heard of, Saint-Macaire, about which the encyclopedic book "Wine Grapes"*, which seems to know everything about every grape, says, "Little is known about the history of this obscure Bordeaux variety ... commonly grown in the Gironde in the nineteenth century ... Saint-Macaire has more or less disappeared from its Bordeaux homeland."

* (This is my favorite wine reference book and would make a great holiday gift.)

Saint-Macaire is so rare, the winery pointed out in its press release, that it does not appear in  California Department of Agriculture listings. This winery planted 600 vines in 2012 and now it has its first crop.

Enophile alert! Rare wine grape rescued from near-extinction! I love this kind of wine and this kind of story. But here's the catch:

Retail price: $68
Cases produced: 124
16.0% alcohol by volume
Aged: 19 months in barrel, new French oak

Damn. I was curious to taste Saint-Macaire, but when picked at that ripeness, how could I tell the difference between it and Merlot? Or Zinfandel, for that matter?

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Bordeaux fake wine crime proves Bordeaux AOC still has value. But why?

Most stories about fake Bordeaux are about counterfeit versions of really expensive bottles, 1947 Château Pompeux or a rare double magnum of 1961 Château Prétentieux, or whatever.

A story that broke this week in the French publication Vitisphere is completely different (here is an English-language report on that story). French customs authorities are investigating the possibility that an unnamed négociant bought 420,000 liters of wine from Languedoc -- enough for 560,000 bottles -- and sold that wine to global distributors as Bordeaux.

For some of that workmanlike Languedoc bulk wine, there was clearly going to be value added. The negociant claimed that 93,000 bottles worth were Pomerol, 80,000 bottles were Margaux and 47,000 bottles were Pauillac. Though illegal and immoral, etc., that's alchemy I can understand. The idea was to turn $12 bottles of wine into $50 bottles of wine. That crime would pay.

What surprised me was that the négociant tried to pass off more than 1/3 of his bulk Languedoc wine -- 190,000 bottles -- as entry-level Bordeaux AOC wine, and another 93,000 bottles as Bordeaux Superieur AOC (in this case "Superieur" is a region and not a quality designation, though I didn't know that when I first started drinking wine and I'll bet not many people know it now.)

I don't know about you, but I would rather buy a Languedoc wine than a Bordeaux AOC wine.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The perils of cheap Pinot Noir: notes from PinotFest

Ross Cobb makes some of the most elegant Pinots in California
PinotFest is one of the best annual wine tastings in San Francisco, with current-release Pinots Noir from throughout the West Coast, but usually I don't take a lot of notes. I'm too easily distracted: too many people I want to talk to. Usually I taste some Pinots I'm interested in, chat with a few folks, eat some duck gizzards (?? every year they serve these) and go on my way.

This year, after I had tasted about a half-dozen Pinots, I was thinking, wow, the West Coast is really doing great things with this grape. These are outstanding, terroir-driven, lively, pretty, not overdone wines that I wish I could spend an entire evening with.

Then I ran into a sommelier and wine instructor I have known for years, and she was shaking her head. "These wines are depressing," she said. "So much oak. So over the top."

How could we differ so completely?

It turns out to be a class issue, and a conundrum in talking about California and Oregon Pinot Noir.

Friday, December 1, 2017

NIMBY wine wars erupt over a funeral at a California winery

The Disunited States sucks right now. I'm saying this as a guy who wrote my Thanksgiving wine column for Palate Press about how we should all just get along.

Then I took a look at the comments on this story about a winemaker's funeral in Santa Barbara County. There's something really wrong with this country, and this story and the comments encapsulate it.

First, the setup. Winemaker Seth Kunin died unexpectedly last month of a heart attack at age 50. Patrick Comiskey wrote a nice obit of Kunin for the LA Times. Kunin was a beloved guy in the chummy Santa Barbara winemaking scene.

Naturally, people who worked with him wanted to hold a memorial service. Larner Vineyard offered to host it. This was a great location because Larner Vineyard has for years sold its grapes to young winemakers just starting out, thus helping to foster that community.

Larner Vineyard had fought with neighbors when it wanted to open a winery and tasting room. I am not taking a position on this. Santa Barbara County can be very NIMBY*, but I have driven on Ballard Canyon Road to Larner Vineyard and it does require attentiveness. That said, the permit was issued; the vineyard and winery are open (albeit not for drop-in tasting). And earlier this month, more than a year after the zoning decision, the memorial service was scheduled.

(* Not In My Back Yard; people who don't generally oppose development but don't want it next to them)

Knowing how popular Kunin was, the Larners hired traffic attendants to staff the memorial service. The service was popular enough that the parking lot filled and about a dozen cars had to park out on the road. Not an ideal situation on Ballard Canyon Road, but there were parking attendants, and it was not exactly a wine-release party.

Someone anonymously filed a complaint with the county, claiming the Larners violated their winery permit by hosting a big event that caused traffic disruptions. The Larners counter that it wasn't an event for commercial purposes. The county will investigate.

Why I'm writing this blog post: the aggressive, nasty tone of the comments from one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. People who live in Santa Ynez Valley, in or around Ballard Canyon, they live in paradise. And they're in California: they should be doing yoga, smoking soon-to-be legal weed and coexisting.

Instead, here are a few snippets:

"I am disgusted that this HAG would stoop so low."

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Wine Enthusiast's Top 100 shows the chaos of vino

Courtesy Wine Enthusiast
After I wrote last month about Wine & Spirits' top 100 wineries, and last week about Wine Spectator's top 100 wines, I got a comment from Jim Gordon,  one of the critics at Wine Enthusiast, saying essentially, "Hey, what about us?"*

Wine Enthusiast often gets left out of discussions of wine media, which used to irk its longtime California critic Steve Heimoff. In the print era, I'm sorry Steve, but the Enthusiast did seem minor-league, like a company created to sell accessories that also had a magazine. It didn't have the pompous importance of the Spectator or the enophile seriousness of Wine & Spirits.

That latter description is still true, and has become a plus. Wine Enthusiast's short cheerful stories are made for iPhone consumption. And after Heimoff moved on, the Enthusiast upgraded its California critics, splitting the state between two well-respected writers, Gordon and Virginie Boone. I really should take the Enthusiast more seriously even though it doesn't take itself too seriously.

So I decided to take Gordon up on his implied challenge and take a look at Wine Enthusiast's Top 100 wines.

I couldn't make sense of the list. It was too lacking in focus. I put the list aside for a few days, rubbed my eyes and looked at it again. Still pretty weird.

Maybe I have an understanding now, and maybe I don't, but here's what I think.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Drink WWII occupation booze today: Organic shochu made from cassava and taro

Island booze
Japanese consider drinking an essential part of culture, which as far as I'm concerned is proof of how civilized they are. During WWII, they went to great lengths to provide booze for their soldiers. For example, one of the highlights of diving in Chuuk Lagoon is seeing all the sake bottles that still rest inside the Japanese destroyers sunk there by the U.S. Navy. (You can, and we did, swim in through the torpedo hole and then walk up the stairs through the submerged ship -- if you bring your own air.)

Japan occupied what is now the island nation of Palau until they were dislodged in one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific War, at Pelileu island, about an hour by speedboat south of Palau's main island, Koror. People still visit Pelileu to see the war remnants, such as the impressive cave structures the Japanese built beneath the island. While we were there, our fellow guests at Dolphin Bay Resort, a retired U.S. Marine and his military historian brother, found two Japanese bayonets in one of these caves, more than 70 years after the battle. (They turned them in to the local history museum.)

The greater attraction of Pelileu, however, is the scuba diving, which is up there with the very best in the world. We were wowed by it more than 20 years ago, and this year we were happy to visit again and stay with the same innkeepers, local expert Godwin and his Japanese wife Mayumi.

In fact, as in Hawaii, Japan may have lost the war but it has more or less won the island anyway. Most Americans don't know about the great diving in Pelileu, which is better than anywhere in the Caribbean. But Japanese know: there are direct flights from Tokyo to Koror. Mayumi told us Japanese tourism has fallen off in the last few years as non-diving Chinese tourists have flooded the island for the snorkeling, which also must be world-class as the light-blue water is so clear and there are astonishing schools of colorful tropical fish. But there is still plenty of Japanese-tourism infrastructure, which always means reliably clean rooms, and in this case also meant uniquely delicious shochu.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Alcohol percentages of Wine Spectator's Top 10 wines of 2017

Congratulations to fire-struck Napa Valley, which got some good news this week with a big honor for this vineyard
Wine Spectator releases its annual Top 100 Wines this week. The list often signals something about the high-end wine market: Does the Spectator think its readers should drink more Syrah? (Yes, apparently.) Has Pinot Noir arrived with Spectator readers? (Definitely not.)

I wanted to see if the much-reported backlash against high-alcohol wines has hit the offices of the Spectator, which for years was a bastion of the same old names boosting fruit bombs. I don't want to overly pick on the Spectator: I find its ratings more restrained and useful than those of the Wine Advocate, which probably can't do a Top 10 because it would have to sort through all its 100-point scores and announce that some wines are less perfect than other perfect wines. I like that the Spectator does a Top 100. I just thought I'd see if there's a pattern.

There might be, but without comparing to previous year's Spectator lists, I can't be sure. First, here is the alcohol percentage data, which of course Spectator does not provide:

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Duty-free bubbly turns amazing the second day! Also, shark dentistry

Artists' rendering. I don't take diving photos anymore
At home, I would never have noticed the astonishing second-day deliciousness of a mass-market sparkling wine. The wine was blah the first day so, spoiled as I am, I would have poured whatever was left down the drain.

But we were not at home. We were in Pelileu, an island in the south of Palau known to most as the site of a long and particularly bloody WWII battle, and to us as the base for some of the world's best scuba diving. There's not much on Pelileu other than rusted tanks and leftover armaments and palm trees and biting insects. But underwater, we saw a shark dentistry.

Above a certain knob of coral in the German Channel, small cleaner wrasse fish await clients, in this case gray reef sharks and white tip reef sharks. The fish eat the parasites off of larger fish in a mutually beneficial relationship. Cleaner wrasse are common but I've never seen anything like the shark dentistry before.

The sharks queued up, waiting for their turn, swimming in place as well as they could, because sharks cannot stop moving. When their turn commenced, they swam over the coral knob and opened wide, sometimes rearing up nearly vertical against the current. The small wrasse swam into their mouth, among their teeth, in their gills. The sharks tolerated this treatment much better than I do my own visits to my dentist. They must have liked it because some of them, when their turn was up, swam to the back of the queue to wait another turn. I've been diving more than 500 times all over the world, but I've never seen sharks wait in line before.

I digress. This post is really about amazing second-day wine.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Men and women don't actually have different taste in wine

Portra Images via Getty Images
Most people, including savvy wine industry folks, take it for granted that men and women have different taste in wine. Not just labels -- the wine itself.

A few of the stereotypes:

* Women like lighter, sweeter wines, especially white wines

* Men like bolder wines, especially red wines

* Women like pink wines (because as Drew Barrymore will tell you, girls like pink)

* Men like older wines and more prestigious wines.

I have read countless articles that accept these stereotypes as fact, and I know at least one writer/broadcaster who has made a good career out of stating these things as fact, even though she does not herself drink like the girly-girls she panders to.

Turns out, they don't either. In fact, according to a brilliant new study published in the Journal of Wine Economics, there is no difference in wine preferences between men and women.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Unicorn whiskies from New Zealand

At a time when rare spirits have a new cachet, San Francisco's Anchor Distilling has unearthed some of the rarest whiskies in the world.

The New Zealand Whiskey Collection consists of four very expensive whiskies from a distillery that has been defunct since 1994. Not only that, the Willowbank Distillery in Dunedin only operated for seven years, between 1987 and 1994. At the time, wine exports from New Zealand were still extremely rare -- imagine a world before Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc -- and the distillery owners couldn't get enough domestic interest to keep their business running.

Perhaps these whiskies were ordinary when they were made. Perhaps they offered New Zealanders no reason to pay a premium over good imported Scotch. Obviously a Dunedin product would have access to New Zealand's famously clean water for brewing. As for the quality of the local barley, I really can't say, but it's the water that matters most anyway. Maybe the original distillers were learning on the job and their work was underwhelming.

That was then. Now it's 2017, and these whiskies sat around for decades, quietly aging, in the defunct distillery. That's exciting.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

South African wineries juice up their Chenin Blanc into white blends

Andrea Mullineux
Chenin Blanc is having a moment with New York sommeliers. However, in countries where it never fell out of fashion -- South Africa, where it's the most-planted wine grape, and England, where they drink a lot of what South Africa grows -- people are a little bored with Chenin Blanc.

Even if you love Chenin Blanc, it's easy to see how that can happen. South Africa excels at making cheap, clean, easy to drink Chenin Blanc. No one disputes that high-end Chenin Blanc can be interesting, but for most people it's a wine you drink when you want something simple.

One thing that surprised me when I visited South Africa two years ago was how many producers are beefing up their Chenin with oak treatments, just to do something different. It's not the U.S., where a decision to order Chenin is a conscious and even trendy choice for its light body and food friendliness. Winemakers in South Africa want their Chenin Blanc to be challenging. They want complexity. They want body. Sometimes they want it to be something that by nature it's not.

I was offered the opportunity to taste some premium South African white blends. It's an obscure category -- in fact, it's about the most obscure category I can think of, as I didn't realize it existed before I got the email. Naturally I said "sure!"

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Trends in the wine world: a conversation with Wine & Spirits' Josh Greene

Josh Greene
Wine & Spirits magazine's Top 100 is a bit different from those of other publications. The magazine chooses wineries rather than individual wines (it does the latter also), thus rewarding excellence across a range rather than a single unicorn wine.

You might think that this philosophy would lead to stability in the list: a great winery this year is likely to be a great winery next year. In fact, turnover has increased in recent years and 31 wineries -- nearly one-third of the list -- are new in 2017.

I met Wine & Spirits publisher and editor Josh Greene to chat about the 2017 list and what kind of trends in the wine world it reflects. Full disclosure: I occasionally write for Wine & Spirits myself, but I have nothing to do with its Top 100 coverage.

Gray: Why 31 new wineries?

Greene: First of all, the market is expanding so much. There's a whole lot of wines we haven't seen before. There are also new projects that are beginning to hit their stride.

Gray: Doesn't it represent some difference in the outlook of the magazine?

Monday, October 2, 2017

Wine divide: ordinary people and enophiles are experiencing different products

Quick, don't think about it, just answer:

When you hear the word "Wine", what type of wine do you imagine?

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Wine Advocate sake story, one year later

Last September, I discovered that a single company was selling all 78 sakes rated 90 points or more by the Wine Advocate -- and only those 78 sakes, nothing else. Prices for those sakes, some of which were difficult to obtain elsewhere, were in some cases significantly higher than their original release prices from the breweries.

I discovered that this company, The Taste of Sake, had connections to, and to the former employer of Lisa Perrotti-Brown, the Wine Advocate's Editor-in-Chief. Here are the two original posts: the first one and the followup.

After my first post, Ms. Perrotti-Brown wrote, "We are investigating the facts behind these allegations ... 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."

A year has passed. I have been asked by many people if I have any more facts on the investigation. I do not. The Taste of Sake site was taken down and is not up today.

I wanted to know if The Wine Advocate has progressed with its own investigation, so last week I attempted to contact Ms. Perrotti-Brown. I do not have a direct email or phone number for her, so once again I tried to send an email through the company contact page. That email has received no response other than from a web administrator acknowledging receipt. Ms. Perrotti-Brown answered no questions about the story last year, and to my knowledge has answered no questions about it for any publication, ever.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Napa Cabernet, Yellow Tail and the anchoring effect

Why do many people believe a run-of-the-mill Napa Cabernet is a bargain at $35, while a single-vineyard Victoria Shiraz is expensive at the same price? The answer is a psychological phenomena known as the anchoring effect.

I'm reading the fascinating book "Thinking Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahneman, which explains, among other things, how our intuition affects our judgment in ways we don't consciously realize.

The anchoring effect is well-established through repeated studies around the world. You will protest that it does not affect you: so did many of the subjects to whom it was proven that it did affect them.

What it means is that if you are shown a number, even a completely random one, and then asked to estimate another number, you will be strongly affected by the number you were shown. 

Before I get to an obvious wine-price corollary, here's a fascinating study of German judges that demonstrates the idea. "German judges with an average of more than 15 years experience on the bench were asked to read a description of a woman who had been caught shoplifting, and then asked to roll dice that were loaded so that every roll resulted in either 3 or 9," Kahneman writes.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

China wine market update: Cheaper wines taking over

Thanks to consumption by young people -- including teenagers -- China's wine market is bouncing back from the 2013 government crackdown on conspicuous consumption by bureaucrats.

It has also changed immensely in a short time, mainly because of who is buying wine now: 45% of Chinese wine drinkers are under 30 years old. Sales of expensive wines continue to slide, while unlike in the U.S., the greatest sales growth is in the cheapest price ranges.

I learned this and more because I had the good fortune to attend a seminar put on for Wines of Argentina by two Chinese wine experts: Dorian Tang of the importer ASC Fine Wines, and Karla Wang of Lady Penguin, a successful social-media wine site, wine club and wine importer.

Karla Wang (left) and Dorian Tang

Here are a few key points from the presentation.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Tiki pioneer Trader Vic's still makes a fine Mai Tai

Your grandparents may have gone to Trader Vic's for a taste of Polynesia, but now that tiki bars are mildly trendy, Trader Vic's is down to two U.S. locations: one just east of San Francisco, and the other in Atlanta.

However, Trader Vic's is big in the Middle East. Of its 18 locations internationally, 11 are in the Middle East, including several in countries where drinking alcohol is, in theory, prohibited. You might think this is a hurdle for a restaurant chain that made its name with powerful rum-based cocktails, but in fact, that's the appeal.

Trader Vic's has 6 locations in hotels in the United Arab Emirates, where alcohol is allowed only in hotels. It also has restaurants in Bahrain, Oman and Qatar, where drinking is limited in similar ways; locals can go get their buzz on, and then return to piety. There is a Trader Vic's in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, but it serves only alcohol-free "mocktails."

"When we started the concept, in the (19)40s and '50s, you couldn't get to places like you can now,"  Trader Vic's director of beverages Nicholas Ascenzo told me. "People came to Trader Vic's for something exotic. Now you can fly to Polynesia. But in the Middle East, they don't go to Hawaii and the South Pacific, so we are still exotic."

Monday, August 28, 2017

Retsina's grapes find an artisanal use

Vassilis Papagiannakos and his temperature-controlled tanks
Savatiano is the most-planted grape in Greece, yet also one of the least known. It's the main grape of Retsina, the traditional resin-flavored that is a rite of passage for wine drinkers. As Japanese say about climbing Mt. Fuji, a wise man will try Retsina, but only a fool will try it twice.

Retsina is the type of wine people drank in antiquity. Without refrigeration, they used resin to seal wine in amphoras; the taste of resin masked subpar wine. The Greek wine industry stayed technologically far behind the rest of the world until the 1990s, which kept Retsina on the menu. Now, Greece is making exciting wines from Assyrtiko and Xinomavro and other grapes, but there are growers all over central Greece with big vineyards of Savatiano and a disappearing market for the wine they used to make with it.

Vassilis Papagiannakos is one such vintner. His family owns 100 acres of vineyards mainly planted with 60 to 70 year old Savatiano vines. His solution was to release varietal dry Savatianos: no resin, just the grape itself. They were groundbreaking in his region, and at first his neighbors thought he was making adulterated wine, which is ironic.

I spoke with Papagiannakos last week by Skype. He turned his computer around to show me that he lives by the ocean. Yeah, yeah.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The best sakes on the market: results from the US National Sake Appraisal

Before tasting 352 sakes in a day (see below)
Here's one way in which Japanese sake is better than wine: the floor is higher. You may never taste really terrible wines today* because gatekeepers like shop owners and sommeliers keep them out, but objectively bad wines exist and anyone who judges wine competitions knows it.

(* Pipe down, natural wine haters. Some people like them.)

I was one of 10 judges earlier this month at the US National Sake Appraisal in Honolulu. We tasted 381 sakes, all of them commercially available (this is not the case with most sake competitions in Japan.) I wrote for Palate Press about an important trend I discovered -- that Daiginjos are getting sweeter and Junmais are getting drier. Here I want to highlight a few of the outstanding sakes we tasted, and where you can buy them.

First of all, here is the competition results page. You'll note that unlike with wine competitions, even the sakes that did not win an award are listed, so you don't have to ask if we tasted your favorite.

From that list, the two Benten Junmais that finished first and third in the category were a revelation: outstanding and a great example of the impact of different rice strains, because the nicknames (Dewanosato and Tsuyahime) are names of the types of rice. The bad news is that neither of these sakes is currently available in the US. Sorry. Good news is that a longtime personal favorite of mine, Dewazakura Dewasansan Yamagata Junmai Ginjo, took third place in the Ginjo category and is widely available for about $36; buy it here.

My own notes on sakes I tasted during the competition aren't very good because tasting 352 on day 1 was overwhelming. I gave 9 of those sakes the highest possible score, but some didn't make the medal round because other judges didn't like them as much (I think I liked drier sakes than the average judge), and honestly, some sakes I didn't like quite as much the next day on retaste.

Here are some sakes I singled out with extremely high scores on both tastings:

Monday, August 14, 2017

Is rosé still cool? You be the judge

(Baby: What are you looking at?)

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

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

What's next for Anchor Distilling?

One of Anchor Distilling's most popular imports
Anchor Brewing Company was sold last week to Japan's Sapporo Brewing Co. for $85 million. But Anchor Distilling was not part of the deal.

I was surprised to learn Anchor Distilling is actually more profitable now than Anchor's much better known beers. The beer-based reason for the sale has been covered well by other sites, notably the San Francisco Chronicle. I called Anchor Distilling President and CEO Dennis Carr to learn more about what the newly independent spirits company will do next.

The answer turns out to have international implications, starting in London.

A brief background on Anchor Distilling: It was founded in 1993 as an offshoot of the brewery. It opened with two locally made products -- Junipero Gin and Old Potrero Rye -- that were as ahead of their time in the craft booze movement as Anchor Steam beer once was. It has expanded its business immensely by importing and selling craft spirits made in other countries, including bartender favorites like the Tempus Fugit spirits and Luxardo Maraschino liqueur (and the cherries.)

In 2010, the entire Anchor business was sold to former Skyy Vodka execs Tony Foglio and Keith Greggor. They sold the beer business last week and Carr said they took on the famous London-based beverage merchant Berry Bros. & Rudd as a partner for the distillery business.

Now Anchor Distilling has to look for a new building, but Carr said the distillery's 50 employees nationwide are expected to move with them.

The Gray Report: I was shocked to learn the distilling business is more profitable than the beer.

Dennis Carr: The beer category has become a crowded category. Premium spirits have been on the rise. These trends have been going on for the last two or three years. At this point, the spirits business is larger than the beer business.

TGR: Where are you planning to relocate?

Monday, July 31, 2017

Wine trade secrets revealed at OIV Wine Marketing Program

Here's why Duckhorn started a winery in Washington
Most wine stories (including mine) portray the bottle of wine on your table as a product of inspiration and craftsmanship. The reality of wine involves a lot more numbers than feelings, as I learned last week when I sat in on part of the OIV Wine Marketing Program at UC Davis.

Most of the students are already in the wine industry in many countries; for example, I met the Jackson Family Wines rep for China. These are not people on student loans. I got into a conversation with a man who is trying to find a Napa Valley winery to buy, but not just any winery: he wants one of the best.

The people who sat on my row, seemingly as depressed as I was by the Constellation presentation (more on that below), were both small winery owners in California: one in San Francisco and one in Nevada City. The San Franciscan was hoping to figure out how to sell the 500 cases a year he makes in a warehouse. I tried to help the Nevada City couple edit their elevator pitch: "You're not making wine in Nevada City," I said. "You're making natural wine from cool-climate grapes from Mendocino County." Both of these are true, but to me, only the latter gets you $25 a bottle.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The terroir of marijuana: Does wine country have the best soil and climate for cannabis?

Erich Pearson (Photo by Steven Krause)
California wine country is rapidly becoming California cannabis country. Will the two intoxicating cash crops compete for prime vineyard land?

There is very little experience in answering this question because marijuana has never been legally cultivated for recreational use. It has been grown where it could be grown (like greenhouses), not where it could be best grown.

Plus, there is no UC Davis for marijuana. Perhaps there will soon be a university research program devoted to cultivating cannabis for pleasure, but right now there's not even a word like "viticulture" ("cannaculture" doesn't have the same ring.)

I want to say this up front: I am licensed to ill in the great state of California, and I inhale. I have spoken to business writers who are covering the burgeoning marijuana industry but disavow any use of the product. I enjoy marijuana, as I enjoy wine, and that will inform my own (burgeoning?) coverage. Do you want to read wine stories from somebody who doesn't swallow?

I wanted to answer several questions about the terroir of marijuana. It took me some time to find someone to speak on the record. Erich Pearson is CEO of Sparc, a cannabis dispensary in San Francisco. You will see him quoted many places because Pearson is willing to be the face of an industry that has been in the shadows.

Sparc has a lease on a 400-acre farm in Glen Ellen, one of the warmer spots in Sonoma County, where the plan is to grow biodynamically. Here's an edited version of our conversation about the terroir of marijuana.

The Gray Report: What was your farm before?
Pearson: This was an old turkey farm. 40,000 turkeys at one point roamed these 400 acres. Their eggs were harvested and sold to make hatchlings. Currently it's about 2 acres of organic tomatoes. It's about 15 acres of free range organic beef cattle. And it's about 300 acres of free range chickens. Most of those vegetables and chickens go directly to a farmers' market. That is not us. That is our co-tenants. But we need livestock to grow biodynamically. We don't want the chickens in the marijuana fields during the year. We will allow the animals into the field and the cover crops in the winter.

TGR: What's the soil like?

Monday, July 17, 2017

Should a higher minimum wage affect how much we tip?

Courtesy Wikihow
San Francisco passed one of the country's most generous minimum-wage laws in 2014. Earlier this month, the minimum wage went up to $14 per hour, and it will rise again next July to $15.

What's particularly generous is that restaurant servers, who can legally be paid less in many states under the assumption that they will make up the difference in tips, must be paid the full minimum wage in San Francisco. We also have a law requiring restaurants (and every other employer) with 20 or more employees to pay for most of their health insurance.

Many people think that restaurant servers share their tips with the kitchen staff, but it's not true. In fact, servers sued a vegan café that attempted to have all tips shared with chefs and other kitchen staff; the successful lawsuit might have helped force it out of business. This is the reason some chefs have tried to create no tipping restaurants: because the people who bring your food often make more money than the people who make your food. But some chefs have backed off the tipless system because prices look higher with tips included, and plus, many diners just love to tip.

Republican white men, in particular, love to tip restaurant servers well, according to a recent survey by For them, the standard is 20%, while for women it's 16% and for Democrats it's just 15%.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Pope: "natural wine" can contain sulfites

If you think Drake can sell a lot of Moscato with a single song lyric, imagine how much wine the Pope could sell with an official papal advisory.

In fact, there was such a papal missive just last month: a Circular Letter to Bishops on the Bread and Wine for the Eucharist.

For natural wine fans -- I wonder how many of them are Catholic? -- the following section is tantalizing:

"The wine that is used in the most sacred celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice must be natural, from the fruit of the grape, pure and incorrupt, not mixed with other substances.
Great care should be taken so that the wine intended for the celebration of the Eucharist is well conserved and has not soured."

Like many religious tracts, those paragraphs are open to interpretation. As soon as I read them, I wondered, is the Pope endorsing no-sulfite wine? The first paragraph might read that way, but then the second says the wine should be "well conserved."

I contacted the Archdiocese of San Francisco for an interpretation. In the time it took the church to get back to me, I imagined how enormous a change the wine world might undergo if the Pope did call for no-sulfite wine to become the Blood of Christ.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Champagne, caviar and a wine pairing principle

This is how normal people look when they're attending a free Champagne and caviar dinner. See how I look below
I got invited to a Champagne and caviar pairing dinner. I'm trying to cut back on winemaker dinners -- hard to maintain my girlish figure -- but come on, Champagne and caviar? I went; wouldn't you?

 The idea for the Taittinger Champagne folks was to show writers that, for whatever kind of caviar you might decide to indulge in, there's a fine Champagne pairing.

Most of the other writers were food people, with a travel writer or two. We learned a lot about caviar. I also learned something important about food and wine pairing that, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, I guess I already knew, but let's talk about caviar first.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Errazuriz uses high tech to redefine "ripeness"

The traditional view of how grapes ripen
Usually when a winery applies a high-tech approach to winemaking, it is to get grapes riper. This was practically the only focus of wine technology of the past 20 years, and is a  major reason our wines are now so high in alcohol.

Here is a refreshingly different story: an enormous export-focused winery in Chile that has applied high technology so they can pick their grapes earlier -- at a different definition of ripeness.

It says something about today's wine market that lower alcohol can be an objective.

Errazuriz makes 16 million bottles of wine a year, most of which it sells in the northern hemisphere, so it cannot take a philosophical stance unless it's also commercially viable. In other words, sure, they can make wines that they like, but those wines have to be wines that sell.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

A Brief History of French Reaction to The Wine Advocate

1978: Qu'est que c'est?

1981: If you want to apply your untrained palate to appreciate our wines, we will not actively prevent you.

1982: Monsieur, with Burgundy, you should be grateful we send you any wine.

1984: Pardon? Monsieur? Allo? You are praising the wrong vintage. Silly American.

1987: Monsieur, we are afraid you do not understand wine. These numbers are all wrong. You have third growths higher than first growths! Do you not understand geography?

1990: What is this nonsense about California making perfect wines? Monsieur, you go too far.

1993: You have insulted Burgundy wines for the last time. Our lawyers will see you in court. You are no longer welcome to bathe in our foie gras.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Right-wing website's wine club may be violating U.S. law

Wine clubs are a profit center for several media organizations, including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Most wine clubs are pretty similar: they include a lot of private-label wines, generally given generic names like Lone Pine Hill or Bramble Ridge to try to sound authentic.

The Daily Caller's wine club is different. The Daily Caller is a right-wing website and accordingly its wine club is unabashedly right-wing, calling one of its private-label wines "306 Wine," with the following marketing language:

A reminder of the number of electoral votes (306) that President Donald Trump won on November 8th, 2016. Your trophy for your victory in the great election of 2016 has arrived. When dawn broke, our flag was still there and we turned our map red.
That's fine. I'm not a Daily Caller reader and don't share its politics, but I'm glad that it's promoting wine drinking. It's the other wine on its website (here's the site) that may be violating U.S. law.

Monday, June 26, 2017

A really stupid wine article, annotated

This article just won a big award: Stupidest Wine Article of 2017 So Far! (Plus craziest Oreo creations!)
I don't like to pick on people for writing stupid wine articles. I have written some stupid stuff over the years; write enough words publicly, and it will happen.

But a well-funded publication like Food & Wine has editors who should have torpedoed the article I'm about to tear apart. The magazine is moving to Alabama, and maybe this article is a harbinger of the crap publication its owners want it to be; I don't know. I only know about this article, which in addition to being poorly reported, ends up being profoundly anti-wine, so the gloves are off.

Here's a link to the article. Go print it out because when the editors read this post -- and someone will forward it -- the article may be deleted. (UPDATE: It has apparently been deleted. I have screenshots but I think I'll just let this one die.)

First, the headline: "This $10 Supermarket Wine Just Won A Big Award"

That might be interesting news if it were true. Problem is the wine that the writer is about to sell didn't actually win anything.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Why I decided not to post tasting notes

Like a beach many miles from the sea: what a Roero Arneis vineyard looks like before planting
This month my column for Palate Press is about Roero Arneis. It's an interesting story and I'm not going to tell it here. What I do want to talk about here is tasting notes and scores.

I have tasting notes and scores on all the wines I recommended at the end of the article. Normally I would have appended them. That's how mainstream wine writing works, and that's fine.

In the case of Roero Arneis, I felt that there is an ideal taste profile, which I describe in the article. I like that taste profile a lot. Sure, there are variations within it, and I could write my tasting notes in such a way that they all sound very different. And there are variations of quality. 

There are several reasons I decided not to run tasting notes: the first two regarding the nature of wine tasting, and the others because of the relationship between wine consumers and the media.

1. The wines were tasted under very different circumstances

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Austerity is in for Napa Carneros Chardonnay

Remember when Carneros Chardonnay was buttery? Those days are mostly over.

Recently I took part in a private tasting of more than 30 Napa Carneros Chardonnays under WSET rules, which I wrote about here. I was supposed to be paid (check IS in the mail, right), but the downside of that is, I couldn't keep my notes. All I have is the general impression, but it's a powerful one.

Austerity is in for Napa Carneros Chardonnay.

None of the wines we tasted had the rich, buttery taste Rombauer has made famous. (Note: We didn't actually taste Rombauer, though most of its grapes come from Carneros.)

Even more surprising, very few wines tasted of French oak. Sometimes people put "oaky and buttery" together as a descriptor, but they are very different. Malolactic fermentation that causes butteriness is often prevented in the world's greatest Chardonnays, whereas toasty oak is more often a welcome component. But most of these wines tasted of citrus fruit, alcohol and acidity.

At the end of the tasting, I wondered if this is the best path for Carneros Chardonnay.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

My favorite Canadian wines from Northern Lands 2017

For three days every two years, cosmopolitan Edmonton is the capital of Canadian wine, unless* (see below)
Canada's wine scene just keeps getting better. I had the opportunity to blind-taste a lot of fine wines at the recent Northern Lands event in Edmonton, and I came away particularly impressed with the semi-cool climate varieties, especially Pinot Noir and Syrah.

Given their quality, Canada's best red wines are also good value by world standards. The wines I'm going to recommend here can generally be had for $30 to $50. There aren't many very cheap Canadian wines, but on the other hand, Canadian wineries can't get away with charging Napa Valley prices, even for terrific wines.

The wines I list here are all available in the U.S. through a single California-based importer, WineVIP. Most of the vintages are a bit behind the new releases I judged, but the prices are in some cases cheaper than they are in Canada.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

A tale of three wine competitions

This photo from 2016 was not one of the three competitions I describe. I just like the photo.
Last month I took part in three very different competitive wine tastings. Let me describe them, and you try to guess where they were held.

1) A room full of old white men (there was one female judge, no non-white judges, and I may have been the youngest judge in the room) sat at tables of three, tasted wines together, and tried to give as many gold medals as possible. Silver medals were inadequate. If you didn't want to give a gold medal to a wine, you had to explain yourself first to the other judges and then to the competition director.

2) An ethnically diverse group of men and women sat around a table and frantically rated wines for 16 different characteristics. The tastings were timed and tasters had about one minute per wine. Each spot on the scorecard had to be filled out: Clarity, Intensity (visual), Color, Condition, Intensity (nose), Development, Aroma characteristics, Sweetness, Acidity, Alcohol, Body, Intensity (flavor), Finish, Flavor characteristics, Quality level, Score. (I feel stressed all over again just typing that in.)

3) A geographically diverse group of men and women sat at different tables tasting flights of wine. The objective was to pick the best and runner-up of each variety. More than one table got each flight, so every wine was considered by at least 6 judges. The top scoring wines moved to the next round, while the midrange scorers were tested again. In the final round, at least three tables of judges got each flight, and each judge ranked the wines of the flight in order. Discussion was allowed but the ultimate decision was made by combining and averaging scores.

So, where do you think these competitions were held? Guess now; the answer is after the photo.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Stephen Tanzer shows price matters in Napa Cabernet

Photo courtesy of Vinous
Last week Stephen Tanzer published a retrospective tasting of 2007 Napa Cabernets in Vinous. His column about the wines is available for free; only the tasting notes are behind the paywall.

I asked for (and received) access to the notes from Vinous because, to be honest, I expected to find something outrageous. Tanzer writes in a balanced manner. Glass half full:

The better ‘07s are beautiful, sleek Napa Valley examples with outstanding density, glorious fruit and excellent equilibrium. 

But glass half empty:

I tasted more than three dozen wines that did not make the cut for this article (i.e., I rated them lower than 85 points). And to my palate, more of these disappointing wines were unpleasantly green, bitter-edged, overextracted, excessively tannic, clumsily acidified, oxidative, volatile or dried by oak than chunky or over the top.

Reading that bugged me, because with Napa Valley Cabernet, we are talking about one of the most expensive wines in the world. It's difficult to find any Napa Cabs under $50; wines are just as likely to be over $100 as under. For that kind of money, people expect the wine to be good. They don't expect to shell out $125 for a wine, cellar it for years, and then have it taste like ... well, Tanzer says it better than I would.

So what I wanted to know is, how expensive were these bad wines?

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Now I've had a $3000 breakfast, so what's next?

When I wrote about having a $1000 Napa Cabernet for breakfast, it was Wine-Searcher's most-read story of the year so far. A taste:
The wine has the most basic name possible for a $1000 Napa Cab: "Rarity". It's as if a brothel were named "Sex": the name tells you exactly what you're overpaying for. 
Then came the sequel: The $3000 breakfast Cognac. A sample:

I hoped it wouldn't be a traditional French breakfast of coffee, a cigarette, and ennui. Of course that wouldn't happen, not in smoking-averse San Francisco, not where we pay $8 for avocado toast. Would it?

The latter story followed all the rules of sequels: It's more expensive, louder, and with a higher body count. The question is, if this is to be The $$$$ Breakfast Trilogy, where can I go next? I decided to look it up.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Overproof's whiskey cocktail food-pairing experience: a review

Overproof is beyond the swinging doors; ABV is downstairs
It's not quite dinner, but it's not just drinks: the high-concept Overproof bar-inside-a-bar is a new hybrid on the San Francisco food scene.

The idea is this: you buy a ticket (transferable but not refundable) for a 5-drink, 5-dish theme cocktail experience. The dishes are meant to be shared and are not huge, but we did not leave hungry. The cocktails are also a little smaller than the normal size, but we did not leave sober either. For fine-dining value it can't be beat: $60 a person, plus tax, ticket fees and tip.

Overproof is inside ABV, already one of the country's best cocktail bars, both for its fine cocktails and its elevated bar food. You can and should just walk into ABV and have a drink and some grilled octopus and fries. Overproof, on the other hand, is booked out weeks in advance. We were invited by a PR firm but they didn't have an opening for nearly two weeks, and we ended up with a 9 pm seating.

Pro tip: the 9 pm show has the advantage that you are not rushed to leave. Our tablemates had come to Overproof before at a 7 pm seating and mildly complained that they were hurried out the door. That said, they bought tickets for the second iteration of Overproof as soon as they went on sale.

The first iteration of Overproof offered rum-based drinks. Currently, it's all about whiskey, with 5 whiskey-based drinks and an interior theme that is meant to look like a cozy Tokyo izakaya. We sat under a samurai sword (real metal, but we didn't test the sharpness) and perhaps its implicit threat worked to keep anyone from chugging a shot of some of the Pappy Van Winkle on the library-like shelves.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Interesting views of the USA from an Italian vigneron

"In USA to sell a wine you have to tell a story. That has spread everywhere. Now everybody wants to tell a story about the wine. Why don't we just have the wine? Just let the wine speak for itself."

Lorenzo Marotti Campi runs a winery in Italy, Marotti Campi, with his father, but his hobby is taking pictures in the U.S. He likes landscapes, so he likes the west, especially the entire Rocky Mountain range from New Mexico to British Columbia in Canada.

I sat across from Marotti Campi randomly at a lunch held as part of Northern Lands, the terrific Canada-wide wine festival in Edmonton. This was very unlike most wine media lunches, where a PR person tries to keep the winemaker on point ("tell him about the exclusive sourcing of this Chardonnay"). We were just talking. Or rather, he was just talking, and showing some of his amazing photos, and I was learning what the rural U.S. looks like to an Italian these days. Spoiler alert: It is pretty, even when it isn't.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Making French-style Italian wine from France for a Dutchman

Dominique Génot on the Caiarossa estate
Is a French winemaker necessary for making elegant wines? Dominique Génot was hired for a Tuscan winery, Caiarossa, owned by a Dutch supermarket magnate for that express purpose, but he says that it may not be necessary anymore.

"That's something that's probably changed in the last 10 years," Génot told me. "When I first started in 2006, the idea was to look for elegance in the wine. Finesse. Not trying to make any blockbusters. They were a little bit afraid of working with someone more local. It was mainly this search for elegance and finesse that led them to choose a French winemaker. In the last 10 years, the style of a lot of Tuscan wines, they have been changing a lot. I'm not sure it's so important today to have  French winemaker."

That said, Génot has, if anything, become even more French. In 2015 he and his wife moved to Perpignan in the south of France, but he travels to Tuscany once a month to oversee Caiarossa.

Caiarossa is an interesting property.

Monday, May 1, 2017

"Reserve" marijuana shows weed is already using some wine-style marketing

The label was torn; sorry. But note the higher THC.
When marijuana is fully legal, how will it be marketed? For many years people assumed tobacco companies would swoop in, but so far that doesn't appear to be the case.

Instead, marijuana merchants are, for now, taking some cues from their neighbors in the wine industry.

Take a look at the labels to the right. First, there was Black Lime, the marketing name for a strain of marijuana. Now, there's Black Lime Reserve -- it costs more and is more powerful. That's right out of wine's marketing playbook.

This is an outlier. So far it seems that most legal marijuana merchants use marketing techniques more common with spirits than wine: brand recognition of names like OG Kush or Blue Dream.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Champagne Collet: Big yet little-known co-op aims for subtlety

Sébastien Walasiak
When you ask a winemaker what he's trying to achieve with his top-end wine, the answers are usually similar. Thus my ears prick up when somebody has a different goal.

"Usually in a special bottle you have very powerful flavors, a lot of character," Sébastien Walasiak told me. "We don't want powerful. We want a long mouth, but not too powerful, not too much character."

This for a $100 bottle. Tell me more.

He did, and the story ended up reminding me less of winemaking than of some of the sakes I most like now, but that also took me years to appreciate.

Champagne Collet is the oldest co-op in Champagne, founded in 1921 by growers upset over grapes from North Africa winding up in Champagne. There was a riot and an arson fire over the issue, showing that wine politics haven't changed in France in nearly a century.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Idaho makes its best wines yet

Melanie Krause, owner/winemaker, Cinder
Idaho wine contines to be a fixation for me. The promise of the state seems immense, thanks in part to global warming, which has reduced the risk of vine-killing frost. Terroir-wise, it's not very different from eastern Washington; it's just a matter of updating the farming and winemaking culture, and that's happening.

I love it when -- apparently every other year -- I get a box of Idaho wine samples. This year I tasted the two best wines I've ever had from Idaho. I also will recommend 8 of the 12 wines I tried, a higher percentage than ever, and on par with what I might recommend from a box of random wine samples from any region in California.

There is no "Idaho taste profile," just as there really isn't a Washington taste profile. Idaho was known for Riesling for a long time mainly because of its frost resistance. But when the vines can survive the winter, there's enough summer sun in the best-regarded Sunnyslope region (an unofficial subsection of the Snake River Valley AVA) to ripen red grapes.

Without further ado, here are the recommendations.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Three days in LA: Food finds on a non-foodie trip

A very LA breakfast at Sqirl
Last week my wife and I went to enjoy the World Baseball Classic final round in the City of Angels. The trip was defined by night baseball games, and thus not restaurant visits. Nonetheless we managed to enjoy some uniquely LA food experiences that I recommend for out-of-towners.

Sqirl: My veganish friend Michelle vetoed my suggestion of Langer's for lunch and insisted on meeting us at Sqirl, the spelling of which really threw Siri for a loop when trying to get directions. Sqirl was THE most LA place we visited, and we liked it so much we went back for breakfast on our way out of town.

Why is it so LA? Where else do Americans eat salad for breakfast? (Not to mention lacto-fermented hot sauce and Turmeric Tonic.) It's a great success story: a Brandeis graduate started by making preserves and now has a full-service all-day breakfast place.

The first item on the menu, the Sorrel Pesto Rice Bowl ($8.25) is perfect for LA: it's delicious and healthy enough to allow me to keep my girlish figure. (Walda Frey: also a girl). To be honest, I didn't notice the namesake sorrel pesto but I have no complaints. It's a small treasure hunt of tidbits. Slivers of preserved Meyer lemon pop into almost every bite, making it the rare bowl of breakfast one could call "refreshing," and giving nice contrast to the sheep feta. You don't see the lacto-fermented hot sauce and you're not always aware it's there, but it leaves a nice buzz on your lips as you finish.

In-house baked goods are excellent, and I would be ashamed to list every one the three of us tried. Let's just say the blueberry mint scone was good and leave it there. But we weren't going to be veganish for our whole trip so ...