Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Americans like sweet wines, but nobody talks about it. Missed opportunity for wineries, and media?

The question was, "How do you prefer your wine to taste? Check all that apply."
Dr. Liz Thach
Americans like sweet wines. Big wine companies know it. East Coast wineries know it.

The main people in the dark are the wine media: people like me. We usually write disparagingly about red wines with residual sugar, if we write about them at all. We drink in an ivory tower.

This is my main conclusion from Sonoma State University's American Wine Consumer poll, which was published last week. According to the survey, dry wines are enjoyed by only 36% of American wine consumers, compared to semi-sweet (45%) and sweet (38%).

I combined this story with another Sonoma State professor's gloom-and-doom seminar the week before about the outlook for small wineries and wondered, should more small wineries be making sweet wines?

I called Dr. Liz Thach MW, the professor of wine and management who led the survey, to chat. Here's an edited transcript.

Thach: Every time we've done this survey, we always get these same results. This is a survey of the everyday consumer in America.

Me: How do you choose the people to survey?

Thach: You try to get a representative sample of your target population. Our target population is the American wine consumer. We try to get a sample of at least 1000 people. We need to have at least 40 percent men and 60 percent women. It used to be 45 percent men and 55 percent women. We're using Wine Market Council statistics.

Me: Men aren't drinking as much wine as before?

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Christmas gifts for wine lovers

If you have a wine lover on your gift list, you might think the best gift is a bottle of wine. That's not untrue -- if you know them well enough to get a bottle they would find delightful.

Sometimes that's easier said than done. If you pick up a $12 bottle at Trader Joe's for your niece the sommelier, she'll thank you because she's polite, but she'll also look for the nearest opportunity to unload it.

Wine gadgets wind up in magazine stories this time of year because we all have to write holiday gift stories, but most gadgets are just more space-eating junk. (Exceptions are below).

Here are some gifts the wine lover on your list will enjoy. I guarantee it!

Wine glasses

Glasses break. We always need more. Look for a simple design, and don't spend too much money. More expensive glassware is often handblown and thus even more likely to break.

I usually buy wine glasses at Cost Plus World Market, but I admit I'm intrigued that this is a product Amazon has decided to make as part of its Amazon Basics series, like batteries. It does make sense: if you need 4 today, you're going to need another 4 soon enough. I have not tried Amazon's glassware but I probably will.

A Coravin

The Coravin is a revolutionary system that allows you to take a glass of wine from a bottle without pulling out the cork, so what's left in the bottle stays fresh longer.

I'm in the middle of reviewing a new $1000 version of the Coravin and I haven't yet decided whether I'll recommend it to readers at Wine Searcher, who can afford $1000. I will say this: a Coravin is a gift no wine lover will reject. We're all curious about it. The plastic one at left is only about $200. Buy it here.

Wine charms

Need something cheap? Wine charms hook around the stem of a wine glass so you can tell your glass from your friends'. They're invaluable at parties. I'm still using a set I got as a present years ago, along with a few others I have picked up since.

Good books that are about wine, but not intros to wine

The problem with most year-end wine book lists is that many of the best books about wine aren't really of interest to a wine lover. I know that seems paradoxical, but we don't need a book that tells us what we already know.

Here are some excellent books that a wine lover will enjoy.

Wine and War: Interesting history of Nazi occupation of French wine country

The Botanist and the Vintner: Phylloxera nearly destroyed wine as we know it. A scientific hero's journey

By the Smoke and the Smell: This one's about artisanal spirits, and it will make the reader thirsty for some

Wine Grapes: The reference book I use more than any other, it tells the history and current state of every commercial wine grape in the world. A must-have for people who like offbeat varietals

A good bottle of amaro

Most wine lovers enjoy amaro, the Italian bitter drink meant as a digestif, but they won't necessarily think to buy a bottle for themselves (and if they do, that means they can use another). A bottle of amaro will last much longer than a bottle of wine. In past years I have recommended whiskey or brandy, and those are also fine ideas: get the wine lover something nice that he wouldn't buy himself. I'm switching to amaro because of the rising price of whiskey. If you're going to buy somebody an artisanal Bourbon now, you have to be very sure they'll love it. In contrast, they can fall in love with an amaro they haven't tried before.

One reason amaros are interesting to wine lovers is that they're very different from each other. My favorite is Braulio (buy it here), but currently I'm enjoying a bottle of Amaro Dell'Erborista (buy it here). There are lots of good choices in this category.

A birth-year wine

That's always going to be welcome. It's also easier to buy than you might think: Just go to Wine-Searcher, put the year into the search engine, and you'll see all the wines available.

For the heck of it, I put in 1979 and came up with 1660 wines! There are a bunch of red Bordeaux from that year for under $100.

You can obsess over which is the best one to buy, but don't bother. I can tell you that, as a serious wine lover who knows vintages matter, I am going to exclaim with surprise and delight if you hand me any bottle from my birth year, no matter what it is. You have my permission to buy the cheap one.

Try entering your (friend's) birth year here. Happy holidays!

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

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Trump, tariffs, and trade barriers to U.S. wine in France: the real facts

Annoyed by French President Emmanuel Macron's ability to stand in the rain and honor World War I dead, our own President Donald Trump tweeted about unfair trade barriers that have prevented French people from drinking more U.S. wines:
A clutch of Francophiles hit social media in the aftermath because they hate Trump and assume he's wrong about everything. But he's not. He's a little off base, because tariffs are not the issue, but this is not a bad tweet by Trump's standards. Let's look at the real facts.

1. Trump starts off absolutely correct. France does make excellent wine, and so does the U.S. Don't lose sight of that.

2. French people would drink U.S. wine if it were cheap enough -- at the low end. Don't kid yourself about the glories of Burgundy and the Jura blah blah blah. French farmers have been overturning tanker trucks bringing cheap bulk wine from Spain because that wine has been taking away their market.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Endorsements for the November 2018 election in San Francisco

This might be the most pivotal election in the U.S. since the Civil War, but locally it's all about school boards and ballot propositions.

I have read the endorsements of the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Los Angeles Times and Sacramento Bee. I have also read the candidates' statements on Smart Voter (which I highly recommend visiting because you can see your specific ballot.) I want to commend Tim Richmond for keeping the Guardian's endorsements alive even after the death of the print publication. He interviews all the candidates and that's a lot of work. I also want to commend the Chronicle, which has done a better job than ever before of endorsing in many races and putting all its endorsements in one easily accessed site that is open to non-subscribers.

If you are outside of San Francisco, please vote Democrat for Congress this time regardless of your political beliefs. We need the balance in the system to prevent a slide into autocracy, and it's obvious the GOP isn't going to do it. The rest of this post is for Californians.

US Senator

Kevin DeLeon

I recently read "Season of the Witch" and gained an appreciation for how earnest, politically centrist Dianne Feinstein helped rebuild San Francisco as appointed mayor after the assassinations of George Moscone and Harvey Milk.* I thank her for her many years of public service. But "politically centrist" is not what California needs in a Senator right now. If the Democrats pull off an upset in the Senate, Feinstein's seniority will get her some committee chairs, but Democrats need committee chairs who don't have a lifelong record of accommodating the GOP. Moreover, everybody is tiptoeing around this issue because they don't want to sound ageist, but I'm gonna say it. Feinstein is 85 years old. If she is re-elected, and doesn't die in office, she will serve through her 91st birthday. That's too old. DeLeon was good as state Senate president and is as qualified as any of our state politicians for this job.

(* She is not the witch. It's a song title. The book is about rougher times than these in San Francisco. Highly recommended.)

District 12, House of Representatives

Nancy Pelosi

Like we have a choice. But to be fair, Pelosi represents current Democratic values way more than Feinstein.


Newsom. Courtesy San Francisco Chronicle
Gavin Newsom

Newsom had some serious opposition in the primary, but now his opponent is a businessman endorsed by Donald Trump who is pro-border wall and doesn't believe in climate change. I'm done here.

Lt. Governor

Ed Hernandez

Real estate developer Eleni Kounalakis used her family's wealth to buy a spot in this race despite never having won political office before. If you're going to buy an office, this is a good place to start, a heartbeat from the governor's chair (which I have sat in!) Hernandez has been in the state legislature for 12 years. He's not the most exciting candidate, but it's not the most exciting job, and he is more qualified than Kounalakis.

Endorsements continue after the jump

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

My guilty pleasure wine: admitting my youthful transgression

Opening ceremony for a wine competition. I think they're supposed to be ... pollinated?

This story is about one of my guilty pleasures: a transgression of my early drinking days.

It's about a wine I would never have the courage to praise to a professional crowd: a cheap, sweet, mass-produced wine, screwcapped before that was cool, and I didn't even believe it was made from grapes. I liked it and was ashamed to say it.

The one on the right is better; sealed with a synthetic cork
Here is the wine in question: Kuei Hua Chen Chiew. It's made in China by Beijing Dragon Seal Wine Co., and until last month I didn't realize that's a government-owned winery.

When I lived in Tokyo we used to eat sometimes in a southeast Asian restaurant that served spicy food, and their drink menu was limited. I don't like beer, so this is how I discovered Kuei Hua Chen Chiew (I believe it's pronounced Qwee Wa Shen Shew, but I could be wrong.)

For decades, I thought this was plum liquor. The bottle doesn't say -- I think. My then-girlfriend, now my wife, reads Mandarin, and she couldn't glean any information from the bottle.

But she has a sweet tooth and she loooooved Kuei Hua Chen Chiew, which she thought was a cheap, industrial Chinese version of umeshu (people call umeshu Japanese plum "wine," but it's actually made by infusing plums in shochu, which is a distilled spirit.) Kuei Hua Chen Chiew cost about $5 US per bottle in Tokyo and you couldn't get a bottle of anything else that cheap, other than the lowest-grade shochu.

I was young. We drank cheap. 

Thursday, September 6, 2018

An ancient, rare wine that can be beautiful, or smell like old lady's perfume: Lacrima di Morro d'Alba

Lacrima di Morro d'Alba grapes will cry for you -- see below
Even among niche wine lovers, Lacrima di Morro d'Alba is polarizing. When I searched for more info about the grape, one of the highest ranked items I found was Stevie Stacionis' piece "The First Wine I Ever Hated."

The good news is the wine is ancient and really interesting: the King of Burgundy (!) praised it in the year 1167 after conquering the region. It faced extinction in the 20th century, but has been revived as Italy has concentrated on rediscovering its indigenous wines.

Stacionis complains that the wine smells like her great aunt's perfume, and I can see that. It's an unusual category of grape: an aromatic red. Its best qualities are usually all in the nose, and if there were no exceptions to that, I wouldn't be writing this. Fortunately, I found two reasons to drink a really weird and unique varietal.

Lacrima di Morro d'Alba smells like gingerbread, anise, dried flowers and plums -- like some sort of European Christmas hot beverage. It's not shy: the aromas jump out of the glass. But for most of the wines, the flavors are underwhelming. It's a light-bodied wine and without sufficient fruit on the palate, those aromas quickly shift from intriguing to cloying. There's often also a balance problem, as producers do one thing wrong and try to fix it by doing something else wrong.

There are a couple of exceptions: the wines of Stefano Mancinelli and Marotti Campi. Of seven Lacrima di Morro d'Alba wines I tasted at a seminar in Marche, Italy, these are the only ones I want to drink.

Because only about 30 producers make only about 80,000 total cases, it's possible these are the best Lacrima di Morro d'Alba wines that have ever been made in the history of the world.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

How to buy sake at a Japanese grocery store: a pictorial guide

A Japanese grocery store is generally a terrific place to buy sake for selection, price and freshness -- which is very important. However, I have never seen anyone get useful advice from store staff. In making a choice, you're generally on your own.

I took some photos at Nijiya in San Francisco to help you out. The Japanese grocery store in your city may have a different selection, but the buying principles will still apply.

1) Most (not all) of the good sakes will be in the refrigerated section

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Can you bring cheese into the U.S. from Europe? YES YOU CAN!

Raw-milk Reblochon is my favorite of the cheeses sold in French duty-free
First, the short answer: if you are flying home from Europe or elsewhere, you can bring cheese into the U.S. for personal consumption.

I'm writing this post to counter persistent misinformation, even from what one would think are reliable sources.

I hope that some editor at USA Today sees this blog post and corrects this completely wrong story. This was the No. 1 result when we searched for an answer to the question last month in France. Yo Google, help me out here -- make my post with the correct information No. 1 please.

(Before I go further, here is the correct information from the official U.S. Customs and Border Protection site. I'll get into it in detail in a moment.)

Last month I had a long and frustrating argument at a duty-free shop in Lyon, France. I wanted to buy three raw-milk cheeses: a Roquefort, a Reblochon and a hunk of Beaufort. The clerk refused to sell them to me. She said I could not bring them into the U.S.

After insisting first that I was right, and second that the risk was mine not hers, I asked to speak to her supervisor. She also refused to sell me the cheese.

Most people would have given up. The supervisor in the duty-free shop must know U.S. law, right?

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The most arrogant comment I have ever received

I have been writing for a while and have received all manner of rude comments, because that's the world we live in. But this complaint, sent to my editor at Wine Searcher, is breathtaking in its hubris.

Here is the original article. You can note from the comments that it made a lot of people unhappy, although I think they (and the commenter below) are mostly upset about the confusing skein of often conflicting liquor laws in the United States.

My editor forwarded me the email below and asked if I wanted to respond. I said he could tell the person to jump to his conclusion, and "Mr. Gray says his life and yours would both be better if you read other stories you deem more worthy."

The more I looked at this email, the more I wanted to share it. I especially like the law quiz he wants me to administer to the beverage law attorney. But there are plenty of gems here; the emphasis at the end is mine. Please share my amusement.

"Unfortunately, with the latest article on Wine-Searcher Mr. W. Blake Gray fell below ground level in his journalistic ethics and professionalism.

In case he would be willing to rehabilitate himself in our eyes, please be kind and pass him to do the following:

Monday, July 30, 2018

Which is better: the $90 Scotch or the $690 Scotch?

Glenmorangie is one of my favorite Scotch producers because I like their main bottling, the 10-year, which is great value at about $40.

But Scotch producers don't rest anymore on their flagships. Instead, they release an ever-expanding group of special bottlings, many of which are aged for less time but cost more money than the main releases.

It's hard to keep up with all the bottles now in duty free, but I was excited to try two Glenmorangie special releases: Spios, which is aged in rye casks from Kentucky, and Grand Vintage 1989, for which some of the spirit was aged in used Côte-Rôtie barrels (the rest was aged in ex-Oloroso Sherry casks and, like many Scotches, ex-Bourbon casks.)

It will be obvious to readers which one costs more: Grand Vintage 1989, because it's 29 years old, whereas Spios has no age statement. The question is, does Grand Vintage taste $600 better? I like it when the cheaper spirit tastes better. I poured some of both into white wine glasses and had a taste off.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Thoughts on deleting my Twitter archive

Last week I had about 9000 tweets. Right now, that number is 8.

I'm not a TV star or Hollywood director. I'm not an obvious target for the trolls on either side of our political divide. Nonetheless, the idea that something I might have tweeted in 2009, when I started on Twitter, would lead to punishment in 2018 bothered me, enough that I decided to erase everything.

I'm not the only one doing this; just the least famous. Before I give my own overlong explanation, I'd like to quote a writer I don't know named Cheryl Lynn Eaton, who said everything I actually need to say in a couple of tweets:

Nothing is ever really gone, of course. I'm sure my tweets still exist somewhere and if I was important somebody could find and read them. Because I had to manually delete the first 2500 tweets I ever wrote, I have a good idea of what you're going to see.

Monday, July 23, 2018

W. Blake Gray shortlisted for another Roederer Award!

Celebrating the shortlisting with Roederer Anderson Valley NV Brut
One of my proudest achievements in wine writing is winning the Roederer Award in 2013 for Best Blogger/Online Wine Writer. It's still right there in my blog's masthead.

The night I won, while my wife and I were deeply into a bottle of sparkling wine, she suggested that I put the award on my business cards. That sounded like a fine idea.

I went right to a design-your-own site, downloaded a generic photo of wine grapes as art, and ordered a batch. I thought the minimum order was excessive: 1000 cards, for a business card I could only use for a year until somebody else won the award. But what the hell, I figured: the night before the next person won, I could just stand in the street and hand them out.

However, I got unbelievably lucky. They renamed the award! It's now called the Ramos Pinto Online Communicator Award.

This is not just a renaming: it's a new category, right? This is my logic as, five years later, I still use those drunkenly composed business cards.

I have been resting on my laurels, but this year, my editor at Wine-Searcher, Don Kavanagh, urged me to apply for Best Online Communicator. He has to read all my stories for that site and he thought I had a good year.

Last week I learned I made the shortlist! It's an extremely intimidating group, and I'm glad that, as my friend Alder Yarrow pointed out, it's not the Roederer Award for Wine Knowledge.

The short list:
Sarah Abbott MW
Tim Atkin MW
Andrea Frost
Jamie Goode
W. Blake Gray
Kelli White

That is some serious company. I'm delighted, honored and humbled to be included.

Here are the articles I submitted:

Sex, Love and the $1000 Breakfast Wine

Please Do Not Buy These Wines

Napa Vineyard Sale's Knock-On Price Effect

I don't know if I'm going to win, but I'm proud of that work.

I hope you'll excuse the lack of humility in this post. I'm just so pleased to have a shot at this award -- even though it would probably mean I would have to order new business cards.

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

Thursday, July 19, 2018

The Master Sommelier-run winery that stays under the radar

In the slow summer months before harvest, Greg Harrington's to-do list is short
Why isn't Gramercy Cellars more famous? I can't understand it. Look at all the boxes it checks:

🍷 Founded by a Master Sommelier, Greg Harrington, who ran wine programs in famous restaurants for Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck

🍷 Well-reviewed, food-friendly wines that usually make "state's best" lists

🍷 Almost no new oak, so the fruit shines, and not too high in alcohol

🍷 8000 cases a year, so the wines are widely available

🍷 Only two wines are over $60

When I visited Walla Walla, Washington in June I didn't think there was much need for a Gramercy Cellars story. I figured everyone knew already: Some of the most sommelier-friendly Rhone-style wines made in the U.S.

Then I started poking around the Internet and discovered that, while the wines keep getting favorable reviews, little else has been written about the winery since just after it opened. This story has been hiding in plain sight.

In 1996, Harrington became the youngest American to pass the Master Sommelier exam, at the age of 26. He founded Gramercy Cellars in 2005. He says that four years ago, tasting his older vintages encouraged him to change some of his winemaking techniques.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Unique wine made from grapes growing wild in a riverbed

Winemaker Christian Sepulveda checks out the nearly ripe wild grapes he'll use for País Salvaje
One of the most interesting wines I've had this year comes from wild grapevines climbing up tree trunks over a river. And that's just part of its appeal.

The wine is Bouchon País Salvaje 2017 from Maule Valley in Chile. It's available in the U.S. for under $25, and I guarantee you will find no wine in this price range with a more compelling history. Plus it's complex and delicious.

The winery owner is progressive-thinking, and hired one of the best young winemakers in Chile. Many of Bouchon's wines are worth checking out, especially their series of "Granito" wines designed to highlight the effect of granite soils.

But the País Salvaje is unique in the world: a commercial wine (albeit only 5000 bottles per year) from wild grapes. Probably the wine shouldn't exist, because the grapevines shouldn't exist.

"We had this patrimonial variety there for many years," says Julio Bouchon. "We didn't give it the attention it deserves."

Nobody did.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Buying tea in China reminded me of being a novice wine drinker

These are the tea dealers I ultimately bought from. Look at all those tea discs behind them! It's all vintage, and all pricey.
I haven't been a novice wine buyer in a long time, but I re-experienced the self-doubt when I tried to buy tea in Beijing.

Beijing's tea market, Maliandao, is overwhelming. We went into a large building with several dozen shops, all stuffed with scores of teas, because that seemed manageable. Both sides of the street approaching the building, one of several, are lined with tea vendors. Is a free-standing shop better? Who knows?

Fortunately I was only interested in two kinds of tea: aged pu-erh, which draws more tea geeks than any other type, and a specific white tea (yue guang bai) that a friend told me is good. So I was like a wine shopper looking only for, say, Riesling and Cabernet.

I wasn't sure I would buy aged pu-erh because it's expensive: a single 400g disc of 20 year old tea costs at least $200 and often much more. I like pu-erh because I order it at dim sum, but I've never had the high-end version. It was a rare opportunity to get a great tea but I feared buying the wrong thing.

My friend Jonathan, a food writer and tea geek (and author of this book), gave me advice beforehand, including an age-range sweet spot (6 to 14 years old) but not a price estimate, which proved to be an issue.

I decided to get the white tea first, because it's cheaper and thus the price of failure is lower. But just choosing a shop was challenging. I did so by instinct: I liked the look of one man more than his neighbors.

When buying tea, you will taste a lot of tea: I was wired afterward.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Endorsements for the June 2018 election in San Francisco, California

Gavin Newsom at his other job. Courtesy SF Chronicle
We should talk more broadly about politics in this country. Instead, most of our "political" discussions have deteriorated into the kind of name-calling you see between fans of rival sports teams.

This is why I give endorsements for every election. I tell you who/what I'm going to vote for and why. I encourage all of you who have any online forum -- Twitter, Instagram, whatever -- to also tell us how you're voting on local issues, rather than parrot national outrage posts that may have been written in Moscow.

In making city endorsements, I triangulated between the centrist San Francisco Chronicle and the leftist San Francisco Bay Guardian (click on the publication names to read their endorsements directly.) I want to salute Tim Redmond, longtime Guardian editor, for continuing to put in the hard work of interviewing candidates and carefully investigating ballot measures even though the print publication has ceased to be.

For state races I also read the endorsements of the Los Angeles Times and Sacramento Bee; both are generally centrist publications. And I read various candidates' Wikipedia pages (some linked below), news stories about ballot propositions, etc.

Your first stop outside this post should be Voter's Edge California, a nonpolitical site which will show you what is on your specific ballot and where to find your polling place. In the November election that site will have lots of useful information provided by the candidates themselves, but as of this writing it's still a little sparse. That's a shame because many of the races will be decided in June.

I didn't write these endorsements as click bait, but I might as well start with my most surprising pick.

Kevin DeLeon
US Senator: Kevin DeLeon

At age 84, Dianne Feinstein is the oldest member of the Senate. Her age isn't a competence issue, but her views haven't evolved as California's have, and she has become unrepresentative of what Democrats here want. Example: she was a strong opponent of legal cannabis her entire career until LAST MONTH when it occurred to her that it's an election issue. In 2016 she said that her time on the state parole board convinced her that cannabis was a gateway drug and she campaigned against its legalization.

That's just one example. I could list others, but just take a look at this chart. Feinstein supports Donald Trump's agenda much more than she should: she is second of every Democrat in the Senate in oversupporting Trump.

Do you want a California Democratic Senator to support Trump's agenda? I do not.

DeLeon is easily the best of the many candidates who probably won't get the votes to replace her. The Southern California native was president of the State Senate for four years, and he authored important bills on renewable energy. Look through his positions; he represents current California political views. Feinstein does not.

US House, District 12: Nancy Pelosi

I'm not a huge fan of Pelosi remaining in the house party leadership role. Not only is she a great political tool for Republicans running for office, she says impeachment is off the table. What? Before Mueller's even done? But she has no credible local opposition for her House seat. At least with her in office San Francisco's representative will be powerful.

(Endorsements continue after the jump)

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Wine grapes from the Biblical era resurface in a Palestinian fruit market

Table grapes from a vineyard near Hebron. I shot this from a car. Who knows what ancient varieties may be there?
If you are a fan of unusual grape varieties, the Israeli winery Recanati has a couple of wines for you. Their story is, literally, epic: centuries spent in hiding until Israeli-Palestinian cooperation brought them back. The ancient white wine has been available for four years; the ancient red is just coming on the market this year.

Marawi and Bittuni are ancient grapes that disappeared from wine production during the centuries that Israel was ruled by Muslims. Wine was important in the Biblical era, and there is plenty of archeological evidence of wine production in the Holy Land. But in the modern era, until Edmond Rothschild restarted wine production in the 1880s, the area was a viticultural desert.

Rothschild brought the best-regarded French grapes at the time, including Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and the Jewish community made generally lousy wines with them for decades, before and after the founding of the state of Israel. Cab and Merlot aren't well-suited for the Mediterranean heat of the low-lying areas where they were planted.

Much of the best terroir is in the West Bank
Israeli wine has been on a resurgence for about two decades, led mainly by growers planting in higher-elevation, cooler areas. (Complicating things, many of these areas are in Palestinian territory.) Everyone understood that Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which are believed to have originated in the 1700s in France from natural crossings in vineyards, were not the grapes of the Bible. Most people just assumed that the grapes behind sage advice like "Use a little wine for thy stomach's sake and thine often infirmities" (1 Timothy 5:23) were lost to time.

Dr. Shivi Drori at Ariel University thought he knew how to find them.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

What is Jimmy Butler drinking to celebrate the Minnesota Timberwolves making the playoffs?

I love that he's specific. Not just "wine," or "good wine." Butler knew exactly the bottle he was going to open.

For those of you not following the NBA, Minnesota had not made the playoffs since 2004, the longest stretch of no-postseason play in a league where more than half the teams make the playoffs. The Wolves faced Denver on Wednesday in the final game of the regular season, with the winner going to the playoffs and the loser staying home. The Wolves won in overtime. Congratulations Minnesota! You earned that fine bottle of wine.

If you want to enjoy the same wine as Butler, you can buy it here. It's not cheap, but neither are NBA playoff tickets.

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

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The evolution of Napa Valley in a series of glasses at Charles Krug

Peter Mondavi Jr. last week
Few wineries in the United States can give you the taste of history, for better and worse, like Charles Krug.

It's all there: the world-class wine made in California before outsiders realized it was possible; the hardship wrought by a bitter lawsuit between brothers; the slow rebuilding of vineyard sources; the modern move toward ever-riper wines.

I attended a vertical tasting of Charles Krug's top wine, Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon, last week at the winery. The experience was fascinating partly for the wines themselves -- some were so delicious that I lingered behind to finish my tasting portion -- and partly for the glimpse at Napa Valley history. The Mondavi family's history has been entwined with Napa Valley's since 1943, when Cesare and Rosa Mondavi assented to their son Robert's ambition and bought Charles Krug. So let's go through the wines in chronological order, the way we tasted them, for a history lesson.

(Note: Three of these wines will be available to the public in June. Charles Krug is planning to do a limited-release of a three-pack including the '74, '91 and '03. I don't know what the price will be, but I do know these wines will be worth having. Here's the winery's contact info.)

1964: Brothers Robert and Peter Mondavi were not getting along, and had not been for a while. Robert, the marketing wizard, was chafing to do greater things that would prove Napa Valley was a world-class wine region. Peter, the winemaker, just wanted to make decent wine and have his brother sell it.

Monday, March 26, 2018

"André -- The Voice of Wine" is a rare wine documentary of interest to novices and experts alike

André Tchelitscheff is arguably the most important man in modern California wine history, but that doesn't guarantee that a documentary about his life will be interesting.

Fortunately, his grand-nephew Mark Tchelistcheff, who spent 10 years working on the film "André -- The Voice of Wine," enlists eloquent wine people from around the world to tell the story of a man who went from fighting on the losing side in Russia's Communist revolution to teaching all of Napa Valley about the importance of hygiene.

"My point was to bring out the terroir of André, but not necessarily to focus on the dirt," Mark Tchelistcheff told me. "There were many stories that did not make the film. 70% of the winemakers I interviewed didn't make the film. I have over 300 hours of interviews that didn't make the film."

What he chose, with some advice from three-time Oscar-winning sound editor Walter Murch, are snippets that allow winemakers to tell not just the ups and downs of André Tchelistcheff's life, but also how he affected them.

"André -- The Voice of Wine," which has its Wine Country premiere on Apr. 7 during Festival Napa Valley's new Springboard Series, is a rare achievement: a wine documentary that isn't boring for either wine experts or novices.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Wine tasting in Napa Valley is like taking an international flight

I love visiting Napa Valley. It's beautiful, and the food in good restaurants may be even better on a world scale than the wine.

I love many of the wines. Napa Valley has such good terroir that it can always surprise you. I'm not a fan of high-alcohol overextracted Cabernets, which the valley is famous for, but there are so many other great (and usually cheaper) wines there that I could drink Napa Valley wine every night for a month and not get tired.

But there's a usually unstated reason I like Napa Valley and it's a little dishonest of writers not to 'fess up about it.

When I visit Napa Valley, I'm a minor VIP. I'm not in first class: I'm not LeBron James (this is my favorite wine sports story ever), I'm not Robert Parker, and I'm not a billionaire, so I don't know exactly how good it is in first class.

But I'm solidly in business class, and it's good. It's very good. I get appointments for just me. Winery owners buy me lunch and ask if I have written anything lately. People hand me bottles of wine to take home. Usually (not always) I stay for free and often I eat for free. Always, I drink for free. I love visiting Napa Valley. Who wouldn't, in business class?

So when one of my non-wine-geek friends asks for a recommendation on where to visit in Napa Valley, I always tell them, go somewhere else.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Private label wines: Like a seat on a no-frills airline, people may complain but they love them

Damien Wilson
I started something rare recently, an intelligent discussion on social media, by tweeting my disdain for a fawning article about another tech company that knows nothing about wine "disrupting" the business by putting bulk wine in its own bottles.

Soon I found myself the least intelligent person in the cyber-room, as Felicity Carter, editor-in-chief of Meininger's Wine Business International, and Damien Wilson, an Australian wine marketing professor who teaches at Sonoma State University, took opposite sides on whether or not private label wines are good for consumers.

I'm going to give you that intelligent wine conversation, and a conclusion.

But first, a primer. Private label wines are everywhere but don't announce their presence. There's an ocean of bulk wine made cheaply in California's San Joaquin Valley, Australia, Chile, and elsewhere. What a private label wine does is attempt to make it seem like this wine was handmade by a person from a single place. Lately some private-label companies promote the winemaker who "made" the wine when in fact the wine usually just came out of a tanker truck.

However, that doesn't mean it's bad wine. We are in a golden age of minimum wine quality, when most of the bacteriological flaws that existed in wine a generation ago have been eliminated. The biggest arguments against private-label wines are that they're inauthentic -- pretending to be something they're not -- or that the taste is one-dimensional and boring.

For many wine drinkers, these are not negatives.

It's easy to side with Felicity Carter in this discussion, but to understand Damien Wilson's point of view, you have to consider how powerful name brand wines are in the U.S. market. California has thousands of wineries, many of them small and artisanal, but just three companies produced about 60% of all California wine last year, according to Wine Business Monthly.

Is there any real difference between bulk wine sold in an established brand like Mark West or Black Box, owned by Constellation, or Glen Ellen or Cupcake, owned by The Wine Group, or bulk wine sold to a supermarket with a made-up name like Bubbling Brook Cellars? In some cases the Cabernet is pouring from the same spigot. This is not to say any of it is bad: it's just cheap and, to the enophile, not very interesting. But plenty of consumers like it: Cupcake and Black Box are among the hottest brands in America. So why wouldn't people like the same juice in a different container?

Here's how the discussion went:

Felicity Carter
Felicity Carter: Private label is (mostly) a race to the bottom, Damien. The distributor gets the brand equity and can just change suppliers at will. It becomes all about what price they can get from suppliers. (Blake's note: that means the label doesn't change even when the wine comes from somewhere else.)

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The fruits of war: two wineries of Lebanon

Naji Boutros
Naji Boutros went to Stanford and got a masters in artificial technology. He was a vice president at Merrill Lynch in London. Then in 1996 he made a visit home to Lebanon, to see his grandfather's old vineyard and hotel. It was in ruins, as was most of Bhamdoun, the village around it.

"The village was a Christian village, and it was massacred in the war, in 1983," Boutros said. "It was known as the Mountain War." The damage barely attracted any notice outside the region, but it had a profound effect on Boutros.

Boutros was one of two winery owners I interviewed at a Lebanese wine tasting in November. The tasting was chaotic, but there were some good wines, and I was able to spend a few minutes with the owners of the wineries whose wines I liked best.

Despite political turmoil, the wine industry is thriving in Lebanon, relatively speaking: more than 40 wineries make about 800,000 cases a year combined. The largest Lebanese winery, Chateau Ksara, is responsible for about a third of that. Twenty years ago, Lebanon had just five wineries. Lebanon's largest wine export market is, sadly, Lebanese restaurants in France, followed by retail sales in the UK. Lebanon would like Americans to learn about its wines beyond the delights of Chateau Musar. The wines may mostly be made from international varieties, but Lebanese wines are generally made with a European sensibility.

One huge advantage of buying these Lebanese wines is that they are already improved by bottle age. The difficulties in bringing them to market mean that 2009 is a current vintage for both wineries I'm writing about today.

Despite the destruction in Bhamdoun, Boutros kept thinking of the centuries old terraces on his grandfather's property, called Belle-Vue. He wanted to move back. "There's been a huge reconciliation in Lebanon," he says. His wife Jill, who he met as an undergrad at Notre Dame, was sympathetic.

So in 2000 they moved with their kids back to Lebanon and replanted.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Am I allergic to sulfites?

I created a decision tree to answer this popular question.

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

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Trump Administration may not be wrong about restaurant tip sharing. But here's a more simple solution

Chef Wong has a great idea on tipping
Restaurant servers make more money than line cooks. This is because of tipping. Many chefs are trying to change this disparity, but it's difficult. 

The Trump Administration plunged into the problem last year with a proposal that's not a bad idea: that restaurants could redistribute tips among all workers. This is exactly what many conscientious chefs have been trying to do for several years, as this 2016 New York Times story points out. But labor organizations complain that the way the proposed new law is written might allow restaurant owners to simply pocket all the tips.

Tip pooling sounds like a good idea if you think the person who cooked your food should make as much money as the person who brought it to you. But it is hard to enforce legally. And as high-end restaurants have discovered, it's hard to keep servers if they're not getting all the tips because they can get jobs elsewhere where tips are not pooled, whereas the working stiffs in the kitchen can't easily jump for higher wages.

The Obama Administration waded in on the side of servers, against cooks and dishwashers, in 2011. Subsequently some restaurants that tried to pool tips lost lawsuits. These are not cases where the restaurant tried to keep the money; somebody just wanted to equalize pay. Ironically, northern California's own loopy-lefty vegan Café Gratitude, which named its food things like "I Am Magical" (a veggie burger) and "I Am Transformed" (sweet potato tacos), was forced out of business by a lawsuit from servers who didn't want to share tips with the kitchen ("I Am Rapacious.")

It's too early to tell what will happen with the proposed Trump Administration rule. Labor organizations don't trust it, and maybe they're right, despite the appeal of the concept. Public comment ended this week. But I can offer a very simple work-around that I discovered while eating too much breakfast last year in Honolulu.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Fight back against Vladimir Putin: drink wine from Moldova

Landlocked Moldova is especially vulnerable to the Russian boycott of its wine
Hey wine lover: have you wondered recently, is there any way I can irk Vladimir Putin and fight Russian aggression while spending less than $20?

Yes! You can drink a unique and delicious wine, support freedom in Eastern Europe and stick a metaphorical corkscrew in Putin's eye, all by buying Rara Neagra from Moldova -- the Sonoma County of the former Soviet Union.

Moldova needs the help, as it is far more vulnerable to Russian meddling than we are. It's amazing that Moldova had the temerity to sign a draft association treaty with the European Union in 2013 because Russia could -- and did -- quickly crush its economy by cutting off its main export: wine. Moldovan wineries were selling most of their wine in Russia; now they are scrambling for new markets.

Stuck between Ukraine and Romania, Moldova is the poorest country in Europe. Its per capita income is half that of Albania. Agriculture is its main source of income and wine is its main product. Wine is so important that wine grapes appear on its currency and its citizens voted to rename its national airport "Wine of Moldova Airport."

In the Soviet era, Moldova was one of the USSR's main producers of wine, behind Georgia. It's simple geography, as Moldova is far enough south to ripen wine grapes. Its main growing regions are at the same latitude as Alto Adige in Italy, but it's not mountainous.

French varieties -- Chardonnay, Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc, etc. -- have been planted there since the 1800s and they nearly pushed out the local varieties entirely. When a local businessman named Victor Bostan bought the Purcari winery and brand in 2002, he wanted to resurrect indigenous grapes, but there were none left in any of the country's commercial vineyards, says Purcari commercial director Artur Marin.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Cooking with wine: spare rib stew with miso and red wine

A bone in your stew can be a plus
One of my resolutions this year is to make a home-cooked meal at least one night per week. This might not sound like much, but it's a huge commitment considering that last year I probably cooked once per season. My wife has a day job at an office and I don't, plus I read and think about wine and food all day. So I should be able to handle this. (Ask me in May.)

Last week was cold for San Francisco so I wanted to make a hearty stew. This recipe came from the Japan Miso Promotion Board, but there's more red wine in it than miso. The combo intrigued me, plus it gives me a good forum to talk about using red wine in cooking.

The recipe calls for 3 cups of red wine. I measured them out and discovered that left about a glass of wine in the bottle. Presumably this means 3 cups for the stew and one for the chef.

The question is: which red wine? My apartment is awash in red wine: bottles that people send me as samples. I wouldn't feel guilty about opening any of them, even a $200 Cabernet, to cook with because people sent them to me to taste, not drink, and of course I would taste the wine before turning it into stew. But would a $200 Cabernet be the right choice?

No, it would not: not because of the price, but because a good Cabernet would be more tannic than I want for my stew.

Here's what I looked for in a red wine to make stew with:

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

New wine tax law is more tolerant of alcohol error, apparently

I have been jumping up and down wondering how the TTB is going to interpret alcohol label tolerance after the new tax law pushed the definition of table wine up to 16 percent.

Last week we got a little clarity. The alcohol label tolerances are not changing ... except they are.

Here's the background. For many years, wine was taxed at about 21 cents per 750 ml bottle if it contained less than 14% alcohol, and 31 cents a bottle if it contained more than 14%.

As part of the tax reform passed by Congress last month, that line of higher taxation moved up to 16%. All wines under 16% alcohol (except sparkling wine, sigh) will be taxed at the lower 21-cent rate. This is good. Winemakers shouldn't have to make decisions based on taxation rate.

However, the label tolerance -- the amount a winery can legally misstate the actual alcohol percentage -- was not addressed in the tax reform. And that was very important. Previously, wines under 14% ABV had a label tolerance of 1.5%, while wines over 14% had a tolerance of 1%. But, and this is key, the label had to be on the correct side of 14%, so that a wine labeled at 13.5% might have 12% alcohol or 14%, but not 14.1%.

Last Friday, the TTB sent out a mailer that answers some questions about the way the tax law will be enforced. One section specifically addresses label tolerance. It says:

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Bible's viticultural plan

Zory Arkin left some of his vineyards fallow for a year to follow the Torah -- and thinks he subsequently got better grapes
Many grape growers are going back to the systems of their grandfathers: forgoing chemical fertilizers and pesticides, using horses to plow, etc.

How about going back to the system of the Torah? You don't have to be Jewish to enjoy kosher hot dogs, so it stands to reason you don't have to be Jewish to follow "shmita."

The Torah mandates that in one of every seven years, agricultural land should be left fallow. Like a lot of Biblical rules, there was a sound scientific reason that people didn't understand at the time. Constantly growing crops depletes the soil, especially in warm regions like the Middle East where year-round crops are possible.

Even today, the Israeli government supports the concept of "shmita." In 2015, Israel had a program to pay people to not harvest crops. But it's not the law, and many wineries don't follow it.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Medals in wine competitions allow wineries to make more money

A gold medal means more gold for the winery that wins it
Americans in the wine trade like to say that nobody cares about wine competition medals. In fact, some people do care, according to a study by two researchers from the University of Paris.

Bordeaux wine producers can successfully raise their prices by 13 percent after winning a medal, according to the study published by the American Association of Wine Economists. Gold medals are worth the most -- about 19% more than a non-medaled wine, according to the study. (PDF link here.)

But the impact is not the same for all competitions. The authors, Emmanuel Paroissien and Michael Visser, write:

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Beaujolais reviews done purely in emoji

We're living through the de-evolution of written language: from meaningless letters that form words and sentences back to meaningful pictograms that anyone can understand. This is a tough development for writers, but I'm trying to stay ahead of the curve.

So here we are: the first wine reviews written solely in emoji. I have chosen cru Beaujolais for this experiment because the best quality of a great Beaujolais is delight. Or, better expressed, Beaujolais 🍷🍇😛🍽🍔🍕🍗🤗💘.

Guy Breton Régnié 2014 ($26) 12% alcohol
Imported by Kermit Lynch
Buy it here

G. Descombes Morgon 2015 ($20) 13%
Louis/Dressner Selections
Buy it here

Friday, January 5, 2018

Is a conservative boycott of California wines a real threat?

I heard about it from a liberal friend, who saw Joss Whedon tweeting about it. Conservatives, upset at California because of its relative welcome to immigrants, propose boycotting California wine.

Is it a real threat? The short answer is no. In fact, a conservative boycott would probably help California wine sales, to the point that I seriously wonder if a California wine broker or vintner surreptitiously created the image.

A brief note on that: I went looking for the source of the image, and the best I could find for Patient Zero is Patrick Monahan, a New York-based comedian. Monahan is a volume tweeter but it doesn't appear certain from his feed that he's conservative. I'm not sure where he found it: maybe he created it, but even the way he tweeted it seems ambivalent about the content: he simply shared the photo above with the overline, "Powerful stuff." Maybe it's performance humor. (I have reached out to him and will let you know if he responds.)

Conservatives, so far as I can tell, have not picked up on it so far. (Thanks for making me read Breitbart, Patrick.) But liberals like Whedon have.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Public safety alert: Americans could get more drunk than they expect because of tax law change

One small well-meant provision regarding wine in December's Congressional tax reform package could have a very damaging impact on public health and safety.

As part of the tax reform bill, Congress included elements of the Craft Beverage Modernization Act that had been kicking around Capitol Hill for a while. One important aspect is that it raises the amount of alcohol allowed in "table wine" from 14% to 16%. Previously, wines over 14% were taxed at a higher rate. Now, that higher-taxation line moves to 16%.

By itself, this is a good change that reflects the way wine is made in the United States today. But there's a catch that could be not just bad for wine lovers, but dangerous: label tolerance, or how much a winery is legally allowed to misstate a wine's true alcohol level on the label.

Currently, the label ABV must be accurate within 1.5% for wines under 14% alcohol, and within 1% for wines over 14%. However, because of the difference in taxation, 14% was a dividing line that a winery could not legally cross. A wine labeled at 13.5% alcohol might actually contain 12% or 14%, but it could not contain 14.1%.

Wine connoisseurs have known about this line and it has helped inform some people's choices. If you want a wine under 14% alcohol, you can confidently choose one.

More importantly, most ordinary American wine drinkers are blissfully unaware about how crucial this tax law has been for their relationship with wine.