Friday, November 22, 2019

Healthier, lab-tested, lower in alcohol: the appeal of Dry Farm Wines

You will know immediately if you are the kind of person who would like Dry Farm Wines.

The wine club, founded by a real estate investor who lives in the heart of Napa Valley, is the largest buyer of natural wines in the world. It's ironic because these wines are the antithesis of everything Napa Valley stands for. They're recommended on the website by a who's-who list of biohackers and people who espouse keto and paleo type diets, because they're healthier than most commercial wine. It hasn't made Dry Farm Wines founder Todd White popular with his neighbors in Yountville.

"In 2009 I founded a street festival in St. Helena that became the largest gathering in Napa Valley," Todd White told me. "In 2009 I was named citizen of the year in St. Helena. Today I barely get my calls returned by anybody. My social calendar in the Napa Valley has run dry. It's OK, it's a price I'm willing to pay for helping people live a healthier life."

These are not just natural wines. The company has a very specific aesthetic: low alcohol (12.5% or less), clean wines (despite minimal sulfur) and no residual sugar.

The special feature is that it lab tests all of its wines, so they are what they claim to be. I'm a rather well-known skeptic, but I believe in Dry Farm Wines.

I have no desire to argue about this story with people who like high-alcohol wines. These wines are not for you; you don't have to drink them. I also know the term "natural wine" puts some people into a frenzy. But I tasted nine of these wines and all were fine: the lab-testing program seems to assure it. They are similar to each other, especially the reds: they are lean, fresh and juicy, without oak flavors. I enjoyed all of them.

"These wines aren't for everybody," White says. "They're not big enough, they're not bold enough. They're for people like me."

As for them being healthier than most (not all) commercial wines, I think that's a fair statement. I'll let White elaborate.

Todd White
"I have a tenuous relationship with alcohol," White told me. "I spent most of my adult life drinking too much. I think most regular wine drinkers think they drink too much. Most of them believe they should drink less. But they don't want to. That's my customer. My customers are people who want to drink healthier. This is really about brain health."

White said he discovered the kind of wines he now sells completely by accident, and not before tasting a bunch of truly terrible natural wines.

"I was drinking 15% alcohol wines in Napa," White says. "I don't want to poopoo on Napa. The same thing is happening in Bordeaux. I quit drinking for a while, in 2014, in a period I recall as suffering through sobriety. Didn't enjoy that. I thought it was just the alcohol. I didn't know about the additives or anything like this. I started mixing tea and wine, in the winter. I'd put an ounce or so of wine in the teacup, and have a cup of tea with it. You know what? I felt a lot better. I'm not drinking as much alcohol, and I feel a lot better."

A friend recommended that he try some low-alcohol wines produced in Europe, so he went to a wine shop and bought a case.

"Most of them were undrinkable and I poured them down the sink," White said.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Endorsements for the Nov. 2019 San Francisco election

One of the panels from the mural that has shaken up the school board election.
I hate this election.

I wish there was a ballot measure to end San Francisco's practice of scheduling mayoral elections during odd years. We're spending a lot of money on an election when most city officials are running unopposed. Because there's nothing exciting on the ballot, zealots and professional advocates can have an outsize influence, which is why Juul got its scam proposition on this year's ballot instead of 2020.

Philosophically, it's most important to give endorsements in elections like these. You already know who you're going to vote for in next year's U.S. Presidential race and you don't need my advice. But that school board race is a different story.

I want to praise the San Francisco Chronicle for its best-ever endorsements page. If the Chronicle wasn't consistently in bed with developers, I wouldn't need to do these anymore. I also want to praise Tim Redmond for keeping the San Francisco Bay Guardian's Clean Slate endorsements alive even after the print publication disappeared. Redmond is a little far left for my taste, but he does the most work of any journalist in the city in interviewing the candidates and analyzing the issues, and his endorsements are always a must-read.

I don't know that my endorsements are a must-read, but I am going to vote. Here's who and what I'll be voting for.

San Francisco Mayor: London Breed

Breed was the third best of three good candidates for mayor last year to fill the term of Ed Lee after he died in office. Unfortunately Mark Leno and Jane Kim did not run against her this time and she's going to coast to a full four-year term.
Breed has proven to be very good at one aspect of the job: communicating. She has charisma and is a good spokesperson for the city. As one of our previous mayors is now the state's governor, it's worth keeping an eye on her future politically. She's a Democratic machine candidate and the left doesn't like her; that was also true of Governor Gavin Newsom, but Newsom took more initiatives than he got credit for on homeless issues and gay marriage. Breed hasn't done a whole lot, but she also hasn't mucked up the office, and she has no serious opposition.

City Attorney, Public Defender, Sheriff, Treasurer, Community College Board Member: Whatever

It sucks that five of the seven city jobs on this ballot are going to go to unopposed candidates. This is the main reason I hate this election. Couldn't somebody have challenged Paul Miyamoto for the sheriff's job, or Manohar Raju for public defender? This is what happens when one party machine has too much sway. You can check their names or not: they're going to win anyway.

Photo courtesy Lola M. Chavez/Mission Local
District Attorney: Suzy Loftus

The most interesting and important choice on the ballot. It's the only race with several good candidates and your decision will depend on your politics. Chesa Boudin, who currently works in the public defender's office, is the left-wing candidate: he seems more interested in investigating cops than crimes. Nancy Tung is the right-wing candidate: she wants more drug sweeps in the Tenderloin.
Loftus, currently legal counsel to the sheriff, has previously been a prosecutor and president of the Police Commission, which has oversight over police procedures. She strikes a good balance between supporting criminal justice reform and actually doing the job of prosecutor.

Member, Board of Education: Kirsten Strobel

Earlier this year, the school board voted unanimously to spend $600,000 to paint over a mural at Washington High School that accurately depicted George Washington's life, including portraying slaves and a dead Native American. The mural was painted in the 1930s by a radical artist who wanted to show what American history really looked like. But the school board didn't think students should see history while being educated.
Jenny Lam, a school board member, first voted to destroy the mural. To her credit, after public outcry she shifted her vote to ... covering it up, so that students shouldn't see it. Sheesh. This reminds me of the white people who complain that Whitney Plantation and Monticello now give too many details about slavery. Sometimes the far left and the far right aren't so far apart after all.
Strobel, an administrator at the SF Film Society, and Robert Coleman, an artist, jumped into the race to oppose Lam because of the mural issue. The Chronicle is correct that the mural isn't the only issue facing the school board. But if Lam's judgment is so poor on the one issue we know about, what else is she preventing students from learning?
The Guardian prefers Coleman, a longtime housing activist. I'm going with Strobel because of her nonprofit administrative experience.

Ballot Propositions

Prop A: No

This proposal to issue $600 million in bonds to finance affordable housing will almost certainly pass, so I'm wasting my time here. My objection is that landlords are allowed to pass along the cost to tenants, so people already struggling to make ends meet will have to pay for it.

Prop B: No

The city would change the name of the Department of Aging and Adult Services, which is fine, but would also impose a quota for board members, requiring the commission to include a person with a disability, a veteran and a senior. While I agree with the goal in general, I'm against quotas.


San Francisco's board of supervisors sensibly voted to ban sales of tobacco vaping products in the city. Tobacco vaping is a crisis for high-school kids. This proposition is funded by Juul, the evil bastards who are putting mango-flavored high-nicotine tobacco in the pockets of teenagers, dooming them to a lifetime of addiction. Do NOT let Juul and its nicotine-fueled cash machine overturn San Francisco's ban.

Prop D: Yes

This would tax rides on Uber and Lyft and give half the money to Muni, and the other half to the County Transportation Agency. Uber and Lyft are the main reasons for a shortfall in mass transit funding, so it's an elegant solution.

Prop E: Yes

Affordable and educator housing could be built on public land. As long as they're not going to build it on Golden Gate Park, I see no reason not to vote for this.

Prop F: Yes

Major political campaigns like Prop C would be required to divulge the source of their funding. There's also a provision that would prevent people who would profit from a land-use decision from contributing to political campaigns for a year beforehand. It's a small hedge against corruption.

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

Monday, September 30, 2019

California ABC facing three separate whistleblower lawsuits

California's department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which is trying to ram through a controversial program to force restaurant servers to pass a licensing test, is currently facing three separate, active whistleblower lawsuits in state superior court in Sacramento.

If the allegations of its ex-employees are true, the ABC's legal department is a place where vindictive leaders exact retribution on its employees for attempting to follow the law. If there was only one lawsuit, it would be easy to dismiss it as complaints of a disgruntled employee. But these are 3 lawsuits, two completely unrelated, filed by attorneys who worked for years for the organization.

Here's a short summary of each lawsuit.

Adriana Ruelas vs. California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control

Filed in Oct. 2017, this is the most troubling case, and yet it is also not the only time this plaintiff has made accusations like this against an employer.

Ruelas worked for ABC as a Legislative Officer from 2013 until she resigned in 2016. She claims she "witnessed years of racist, sexist, and homophobic statements by ABC Director Timothy Gorsuch and other high level employees within the Department." Ruelas says she was "called a criminal due to her race," and told her child was an "anchor baby." She also claims that at a meeting regarding licensing issues related to a Long Beach Gay Pride event, she "observed Gorsuch mock the event and simulate oral sex by pushing his tongue into the inside of his cheek repeatedly."

(Note that one of the biggest problems with the ABC's intended plan for training servers is the callous disregard for people who do not speak English as a first language, and for restaurant workers with low incomes.)

She also alleges that she suggested that ABC only enforced a law against "drink solicitation" -- where a bar uses employees to seduce patrons into ordering them a drink -- in bars frequented by Latinos. She alleges that a top ABC official told her "only Latinos violate this law" and that Ruelas was probably herself a "B-girl" (the term used by the agency to describe drink solicitors.)

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

California ABC doesn't consider restaurants or workers "stakeholders" in new plan to regulate them

Yesterday the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control did a good thing by extending comment period to Oct. 11 on controversial new regulations that would require almost every restaurant server in the state to get a license and appear in a massive database.

I wrote a very hasty blog post, but I cannot claim any credit for the extended comment period. Beverage attorney John Hinman alerted me and many others to the problem with this fine blog post.

Now that I have a little time, I want to hone in on a problem with ABC's approach in writing these proposed regulations.

First, a quick summary. ABC was charged by the legislature with creating a Responsible Beverage Service training program. The goal is to recognize intoxicated patrons, and not serve them, thus reducing drunk driving.

However, the ABC consulted almost exclusively with law enforcement officials and neo-Prohibitionist groups before writing proposed regulations that, among other things:
* Require restaurant servers to pay a third-party group for certification
* Require servers to pass a test that includes unrelated issues like identifying illegal drugs
* Set up a statewide database for registered restaurant servers, which should cause privacy concerns
* Does not include provisos for servers who do not speak English or Spanish as a first language

Hinman complains that the comment period was fast and was set to end before most people even noticed that it started. Wine Industry Insight publisher Lewis Perdue also wrote Monday that the ABC was trying to sneak through new regulations without the public noticing. It certainly felt that way to me: the first I learned about this massive expansion of state bureaucracy and violation of restaurant servers' privacy was Monday afternoon, and the deadline for comment was Tuesday.

But maybe that's my fault. I'm just Alcohol Media. The ABC could have sent alcohol media -- also including Perdue -- a press release, but nobody likes the media these days. Apparently we should have hung out on the ABC website looking for news.

What's troubling is that apparently the ABC did NOT reach out to the main groups that will be affected by these new regulations: restaurant owners, restaurant managers, and restaurant employees. I will show this below.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Emergency! Your comments needed to stop racist ABC regulations

California's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control was scheduled to end public comment TUESDAY, Sept. 24* on a new regulation that will negatively impact tens of thousands of legal immigrants and working-class people.

Here's the problem: If you want to be a restaurant server -- not a bartender, just a server -- in a place that serves alcohol, you will have to pass a written test devised by neo-Prohibition forces.

UPDATE: The assembly bill requires the course to be available, at a minimum, in Spanish and English.

I live in San Francisco. I'm not sure the last three restaurant servers I had could pass a written test in English -- or Spanish (I went to two Vietnamese family-owned restaurants and one Chinese). They might lose their jobs because of this regulation, which ABC projects to affect 1 million working Californians.

UPDATE: Thanks to a great blog post by beverage attorney John Hinman, the ABC extended the deadline at the last minute to Oct. 11, with an extremely defensive press release. More on that tomorrow. But the good news is, you have time to comment.

We need more time to comment. I will give the comment link below; here is a copy of Hinman's comment.

Let me stand up my high horse here, because I have a level of outrage unusual even for me:


Friday, September 20, 2019

The poison-vape crisis could be good for cannabis terroir

Cannabis is a quickly expanding industry, but it is rapidly losing its roots in the weed itself. The crisis of illegal vape cartridges could be a welcome corrective.

To begin my explanation, let me give you a little personal background. I am on a PR firm's list of journalists for wine, spirits and cannabis.

I cover wine for consumer publications like Wine Searcher, where I am US Editor. But I also write trade magazine articles. So I get press releases about wine spanning the gamut, from "our Transylvania Pinot Noir just got a Bronze Medal in the Tirana Wine Competition" to "how you can use big data to charge more for your Chardonnay." More than 75% of all wine press releases, no matter how comical, are fairly close to grapes.

For cannabis, though: less than 10% of the press releases I get are about a farm product. Because I'm not a business writer I often get cannabis press releases in business-eze that I don't even understand, and would fall asleep if I did ("Our CEO has actualized an effective system for innovative HR solutions!) I do get product pitches, but maybe 75% of them are completely divorced from the plant. "Our CBD oil comes in three scents!"

I think it's intentional. The young cannabis industry is full of entrepreneurs who, perhaps because they're still worried about propriety, do not want to talk about why people use cannabis, which is largely to get high. Those that do, want to talk about the specific type of high. It's very, very rare to get a pitch that talks about the plant itself: where it's grown and how.

Cannabis, currently, has no terroir. Not in the mind of the public -- and that's because it doesn't have terroir in the mind of the industry.

Wine used to be sold like this, in the U.S. in the 1980s. Winemakers mocked terroir. But eventually they came around. Now not only do winemakers prize terroir: the winery business office does as well. If you can establish that Paso Robles is a good place for wine grapes, you can sell more Paso Robles wine. That has become an essential point in wine marketing everywhere.

Terroir must make a difference for cannabis. Apples taste different from Washington and California. Onions are different in Georgia and Wisconsin. Terroir matters to plants. Why would cannabis be an exception?

However, when the industry concentrates on concentrates -- get your buzz on from this plastic cartridge full of THC oil and who knows what filler -- they develop a market that is completely divorced from farming. That's what we have now.

The vape cartridge crisis could be the corrective.

People are going to want to use cannabis in increasing numbers; we all agree on that. But the industry as a whole has been moving away from any relationship to where the cannabis is grown. Flower -- the dried buds of the weed itself, also known as the Only Cannabis Available before it was legal -- has been a minority of sales.

But flower is the core of cannabis appreciation. If people don't buy and use flower, cannabis will be a fad like oat bran. (Personally I think this is CBD oil's future.)

Right now, many potential consumers must be a little skittish about vaping. This is the perfect time, with harvest coming in, for cannabis companies -- producers, distributors, retailers -- to talk about flower. To talk about terroir. To explain why strains (varieties) matter, and that where those strains are grown matters.

One of the reasons vaping took off so quickly is that it seems safer than smoking flower. Now we know that's not the case. You do have to burn something to smoke flower, but you can be pretty sure -- 100% sure in a legal state -- that you're not getting any dangerous additives.

Hopefully some far-sighted cannabis entrepreneurs will decide to do what wine pioneers always do: plant their stake in a certain piece of land and tell us the land is special, and we should seek out cannabis from there.

Terroir matters in cannabis: I believe this. I hope the cannabis industry comes to believe it as well.

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

Thursday, September 19, 2019

DirecTV's introductory offer is a scam. Beware.

My life dealing with AT&T. Whatever you do, do NOT sign up for DirecTV

 I don't like putting this on my blog, because it's really off topic, but I need to warn people about AT&T and DirecTV.

Do NOT believe DirecTV if it offers you an introductory deal. It won't work out and you will regret it.

Here is my experience.

I signed up for DirecTV in February, with service starting Feb. 28. If I signed up for a two-year agreement, I was offered three months free of HBO, Cinemax, Showtime and something separate called The Movie Pack. I was also offered NFL Sunday Ticket for free for one season. This is a common deal.

You are supposed to call to cancel the movie channels after three months.

I did get the movie channels for free for (nearly) three months, so that much was true. I called the day after Game of Thrones ended, May 20, to cancel all the pay channels. DirecTV cut off these channels immediately. I haven't received them since.

AT&T, which owns DirecTV, billed me again in June for these channels. I called to complain.

An important point is that AT&T bills in advance. I get a bill on the 10th of the month. The June 10 bill is for services from June 5 to July 4.

After about an hour, I was able to get a refund for June-July. Then I explained that I also wanted a refund for movie channels which they had charged me for in advance, but which I had not received. It wasn't a huge amount of money, from May 28 - June 4. But I hadn't received the channels on those days. That took a LOOOOONG time to get refunded.

(Lawyer alert: I believe there is a class-action lawsuit here. Most people won't even notice they paid for partial months of pay channels and did not receive them.)

This could have been the end of the story. But it hasn't been. In July, AT&T billed me for these movie channels again. I called again and after an hour or so, got a bill credit and was told I wouldn't be billed again.

In August, AT&T billed me for the movie channels again. Same process: hours of my time, eventually a bill credit. You really have to fight for it.

Here's a snippet of what it was like to discuss this online with AT&T in August about being charged through Sep. 4 for channels I haven't received since May:

In September, AT&T billed me for the movie channels again. Which I haven't received since May. Same process: Hours of my time, eventual bill credit.

Also, I did not receive NFL Sunday Ticket for free. I don't know if this will ever be resolved.

Here are three different AT&T reps from the same chat session:

I have to say that DirecTV is also not very good. I like the high-capacity DVR, which I didn't have with Dish, and the ability to record four shows at once. I don't like the interface, which promotes pay-per-view over broadcast/cable programming.

And I haven't been able to stream anything. When I had Dish I frequently watched Golden State Warriors and Oakland Athletics games broadcast by the local cable channel on my phone. I have never been able to stream a sporting event on my phone since I got DirecTV because, apparently, AT&T doesn't pay the channel owners enough to get streaming rights. This isn't something they tell you.

The introductory deal sounds really good, but I deeply regret signing up for it.

AT&T has been nothing but frustration. Also, when I had some kind of trouble with Dish, they would offer small compensation: $5 or $10 off my bill, or a free PPV movie, or some such. I have wasted hours of my life with AT&T just trying to get my bill corrected and they have never offered anything as compensation.

Don't do it. The DirecTV signup offer is not worth the frustration. Just don't do it. Cable is better. So is Dish. So is reading a book. Having DirecTV is like banging your head against somebody's door for an hour and, just as you collapse with a concussion, having somebody poke their head out the window and say, "Thought I heard someone. Guess not."

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

Monday, September 9, 2019

Corporate hard seltzer strives to be cool: An actual press release

More than 90% of my e-mail is press releases. I get more than 10,000 per year. But I don't remember ever seeing the word "f***ing" (sic) in one until this gem that I received over the weekend.

It's hard for me to believe the iGeneration are such tremendous suckers that they won't see through this. That said, this release was sent by Anheuser-Busch InBev, the World's Largest Beverage Company, a company so enormous that it makes E. & J. Gallo Winery seem like a small family scratching out a living. Belgium-based multinational conglomerate Anheuser-Busch InBev didn't sell $54.6 billion worth of mostly flavorless beer last year by being bad at marketing.

The release worked on this level: I'm putting it nearly verbatim, on my blog, for free, which has to be a win for the people who wrote it. All I'm going to do is substitute Anheuser-Busch InBev, the company name, for the brand name of the product. The release also uses a cute nickname for the brand name so I'm going to try to replicate that. Anything I change is (in parentheses); the rest is verbatim. Enjoy, and let me know if this makes you thirsty for something sweet and corporate.

(Press release starts here, including the photo:)

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Swiss wine overview: the triumph of the house palate

Vineyards in Aigle in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Can you find the lizard?
Switzerland drinks a lot of wine -- fifth in the world per capita, behind Luxembourg, France, Italy and Portugal. And Switzerland produces only a third of what it consumes. Nonetheless until 20 years ago its market was heavily protected against imports, and it still has tariffs on EU wines because it's not a member of the EU.

This is a recipe for creating a house palate -- a group of wineries and winemakers that think what they're making is great, regardless of what outsiders think.

A house palate is possible anywhere. On one single day in Napa Valley I met three different winery owners who told me they had been to Bordeaux but the wines there aren't any good because they are thin and not powerful enough. But it's more likely to happen in countries where winemakers don't travel: Argentina a decade ago. South Africa shortly after apartheid. Bulgaria and Romania.

So what's Switzerland's excuse? Honestly, I'm not sure. It's a wealthy country and you can hop on a train and be in France, Italy or Germany in a few hours. Swiss consumers surely must appreciate their neighboring countries' wines. But the winemakers ...

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

You can keep Amazon on its toes: visit its California liquor "stores"

This is Amazon's "liquor store" in Sunnyvale: a table with a button
I didn't set out to investigate Amazon for noncompliance with California law. I just thought it would be fun to visit one of the brick-and-mortar liquor stores that California law requires it to have.

But on my visit, I discovered Amazon was openly flouting that law.

Then I visited two other stores and discovered Amazon's practices had changed overnight, and it is doing the absolute bare minimum to follow the law.

I can't be an Amazon watchdog all over the state. This is where you come in.

Do you want to check to see if Amazon is following the law? It's easy!

Monday, August 5, 2019

Thank the Pink Boost Goddess: a cannabis strain that doesn't give the munchies

The munchies are never pretty. Apparently it takes a Goddess to whisk them away.

To prove it, I devised a diabolical experiment for a friend and myself. More on that below.

One of the first medical uses for cannabis was to increase appetite for cancer patients, but it also works that way for healthy people. I don't (usually) regret having an extra piece of chicken at dinner, but snacking before bedtime makes me ashamed of myself. But it feels like I can't help it.

A Holy Grail in the cannabis world is a flower that does not give you the munchies. Supposedly the cannabinoid THCV has this effect, but it hadn't worked for me in the past. A strain called Durban Poison, noted for its high level of THCV, made me crave sugar even more: this is bad.

Thus I was skeptical when Flow Kana reached out to me to try a limited-edition strain called Pink Boost Goddess which the company claims minimizes the munchies.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The real story of Juyondai, a mysterious cult sake that isn't actually rare or good

This is the part of Takagi Shuzo's compound, where Juyondai is made, that they would prefer that you see.
One of the most-sought cult brands in the beverage world is ... not what it seems. Not in a good way. Even though it should be obvious to anyone drinking it, nobody wants to stand up and say this stuff is not good anymore.

Moreover, its appeal is based on a carefully cultivated image that is simply not true. I will show you, with photographs.

A "limited edition" Juyondai
This blog post isn't what I set out to do when I planned to write about Juyondai sake. I expected to write a story for Wine Searcher about the brand, which makes two of the 12 most-searched sakes in the world. It is THE cult sake, and has been for more than a decade.

Many of my readers at Wine Searcher use the site to find expensive wines. It's sometimes my job to write profiles of the wineries that make them, and often I squelch my personal taste because telling people a wine they love isn't great not only isn't my job, but is kind of rude.

As a result, I sometimes visit -- or am turned away from -- some of the world's most exclusive wineries. Some, especially in California, are open about their marketing strategy being based on scarcity. Every wine lover has heard of Screaming Eagle, but few have sampled it, which is why it costs $2500 a bottle in stores. People often ask if it's worth the money. I've tried it, and it's good wine. I'd rather have 50 bottles of good $50 wines, but it's not my place to tell people how to spend their money.

You need to know this background to know why I went to rural Yamagata prefecture, near the city of Murayama, to visit Takagi Shuzo, the makers of Juyondai, even though they told me the day before they would not speak to me. I thought, I'll knock on the door and maybe they'll meet me anyway. If nothing else, I can take some exterior photos of this quirky little sake brewery and write a story without their participation like this one I did about Screaming Eagle.

What I found was something I didn't expect at all. And I think the sake world needs to know it.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Should the FTC allow the Gallo/Constellation deal?

These and 25 other wine brands were sold in April from Constellation to Gallo, pending FTC approval
Gallo is already the largest wine producer in the world. In April, it agreed to buy 30 wine brands from Constellation for $1.7 billion. But the Federal Trade Commission is holding up the sale, presumably to see if it would make the wine industry less competitive.

I wrote a news story last week about how the FTC's investigation is making some grape farmers nervous. That led me to thinking more about the deal.

Before I go further, I will speculate that the FTC will allow the sale, if only because the business of the Trump Administration is big business. That's not the question I want to answer here.

Is the Gallo/Constellation deal bad for consumers? Is it bad for farmers?

Let's look at consumers first. The 30 brands being sold account for about 23 million cases of wine, and include big names like Ravenswood, Black Box, Clos du Bois and Hogue Cellars.

(The full list: Arbor Mist, Black Box, Blackstone, Blufeld, Capri, Clos du Bois, Cook's, Cribari Tables & Desserts, Diseño, Estancia, Franciscan, Hidden Crush, Hogue Cellars, J Roget, Le Terre, Manischewitz, Mark West, Milestone, Paul Masson Grande Amber Brandies, Paul Masson Wines, Primal Roots, Ravenswood, Rex Goliath, Richards Wild Irish Rose, Simply Naked, Taylor Tables and Desserts, Toasted Head, V. No, Vendange, Wild Horse)

Using Wine Business Monthly's figures from its February issue, moving 23 million cases from Constellation to Gallo gives you this new leaderboard of largest wineries (based on 2018 sales):

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Sake by subscription: late millennial founds online sake shop

Genki Ito
Many American attempts at bringing sake to people are lame: some entrepreneur selling overpriced second-rate sake in a fancy bottle.

In contrast, Tippsy is the best online U.S. sake store I've seen since True Sake. Tippsy, which launched last November, is an easy-to-use site and has a legit selection of good sakes at reasonable prices.

It also has a subscription service that seems like a great way to bring new drinkers to sake. For $59 a month, shipping included, you get a box of three 300 ml bottles. You can reorder larger bottles of whichever ones you like.

I was impressed enough with Tippsy's selection to call its founder, Genki Ito. Here's an edited version of our conversation.

The Gray Report: What made you decide to start a website selling sake?

Ito: I think I can reach the existing demand for sake drinkers. There aren't many Japanese supermarkets that sell sake in the US unless you're living in a big city like Los Angeles. Some people go to nice restaurants and try sake and they become interested in buying good sake, but they don't have any clue of where to buy sake.

It's still small demand, but eventually I'm trying to convert millennial drinkers to sake drinkers. That's what this sake club is all about, giving opportunity for new drinkers to try different flavors. Sake comes in different flavor profiles just like wine.

Gray: You're a millennial yourself. Is that what inspired you to do the subscription?

Ito: I'm 35, a late millennial. I came to the US 10 years ago for a job at Nishimoto Trading. It's a Japanese importer, the largest in the US. I started my career in Hawaii, moved to Los Angeles, moved to New York, came back to Los Angeles. I finished my MBA at USC. I've been in this business and seen the growing demand for sake. There's nobody marketing sake very well.

Gray: What is Tippsy doing to market sake that hasn't been done in the past?

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Why Bordeaux, for once, is evolving faster than Napa

Napa Valley is on top of the wine world. Other regions struggle to get people to spend more for wine. Napa has set consumer expectations so effectively that people think nothing of paying more than $100 for a Cabernet Sauvignon made from purchased fruit. So far, Napa seems impervious to the stormclouds over the high-end wine industry.

I've been thinking about Napa and its future in the wake of Bordeaux's decision last week to authorize seven new wine grapes, including two famous grapes from Portugal, Touriga Nacional and Alvarinho (aka Albariño).

Bordeaux is way more conservative than Napa, where wineries can try something new at any time. For Bordeaux, which is still marketing on the basis of a classification done in 1855, expanding the allowable number of wine grapes is revolutionary.

And apparently it had little to do with what's happening right now. Sales of lesser Bordeaux wines haven't kept pace with the first growths but that has been ongoing for years. Bordeaux wineries aren't looking to add Touriga Nacional because they think they can sell more wine with it.

Bordeaux is not immune to sales initiatives; that's why it recently added another category of rosé, Clairet. But the point of allowing Touriga Nacional and Alvarinho is because Bordeaux chateaux are worried about the future.

They see Merlot, their workhorse grape, ripening too fast in hot years, and there are more hot years all the time. They want to plant grapes that better handle heat. They're not going to release a varietal Touriga Nacional. They want to blend it with Cabernet and Merlot to continue making elegant, complex red wines as the world continues to get hotter.

And they can do that, seamlessly, because their wines will still be called Bordeaux. I noticed that new grapes are allowed, but most people will not.

This is very different from Napa Valley, which already grows Zinfandel as well as anywhere in the world but is cutting back on plantings of it when it could instead be expanding.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Bourbon cask-finished Calvados: a crossover idea that works

New American oak in wine has a certain reputation, but it's a different story when the barrels are used.

This is what makes Bourbon cask-finished Calvados interesting. You might think it's going to taste woodier than ordinary Calvados, but it doesn't. In fact, it's a fine fit.

Boulard released a small batch, just 500 cases globally, of Calvados finished in Bourbon casks. All Calvados is aged in oak, but this spirit is unusual because France is full of French oak, whereas Bourbon must by law be aged in charred white American oak.

American oak tends to give strong flavors of vanilla, and a slight sweetness. It's a huge part of the reason Bourbon has been so phenomenally successful for the last decade: those are popular flavors.

Strong vanilla might overpower the fruit flavors of Calvados, which is apple brandy from Normandy. But just a hint, along with a light sweetness? It's not hard to see how that can work.

In fact, it does. Boulard Calvados Bourbon Cask Finish is fine straight. It's not as complex as the greatest of Calvadoses (Calvadi?), but it has pleasant apple flavor and is smooth enough to sip.

The best use for this, though, could be in cocktails, as a substitute for whiskey in an Old Fashioned or similar spiritous drink. It has just enough structure from the oak to pull off the substitution and it gives the drink a delightful apple character. At under $60 a bottle, you can afford to do this at home. That may sound expensive, but my onetime go-to Calvados, a 6-year-old, now costs double that.

Boulard says this is just the beginning of a 12-bottle series of different finishes. Yikes! I'm not sure most of these are going to work. I live in fear of cachaça cask-finished Calvados.

But I understand the initiative. Calvados is one of the world's great spirits but it isn't getting much attention in an era when whiskey is hot, mezcal is even hotter and rum seems to be making a comeback. The traditional means of drinking Calvados -- straight, at room temperature -- holds it back in today's spirits market, where basically everything that sells, sells on the rocks. Cognac makers have embraced cocktails. Calvados has a lot to offer mixologists, but it isn't in very many classic cocktail recipes so it isn't front of mind.

If Bourbon casks can help the Cognac industry find a new generation, hurray for another success from the great France-US alliance.

Half of the 500 cases of this were sent to the US market. Buy it here.

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

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Cannabis as a farm product: an interview with Autumn Shelton of Autumn Brands

Autumn Shelton in the Autumn Brands greenhouse
Cannabis is quickly becoming big business, but it gets further every day from farming. The trendiest cannabis products are all heavily processed so that they're more like day-glo Cheetos than green leafy weeds.

That might be the future of much of the business, but in these early days of legal cannabis farming in California, there are still people making a living selling their product more-or-less as is. Autumn Shelton, co-founder of Autumn Brands in Santa Barbara County, is one such farmer.

Autumn Brands currently sells almost exclusively flower -- the dried cannabis itself, for smoking. No lozenges, chocolates or other concoctions. The company prides itself on the quality of its strains. I had a chance to sample three of the strains before interviewing Shelton and I'm a big proponent of its classic Sour Diesel, and a fan of its Chocolate Hashberry as well.

A few days before my phone interview with Shelton, the Los Angeles Times published a story about residents in Carpinteria, where Autumn Brands is located, complaining about the smell from cannabis farms. That was on both of our minds when we chatted. Here is an edited version of our conversation (which was not done after sampling the product, at least on my end; you can tell by the absence of "uh ....")

The Gray Report: How much resistance do you get to the idea of farming cannabis?

Autumn Shelton: The odor has been an issue for a number of years. About 12 of us have got this very good odor control system, and another two have a different one. The problem is there's still 10 to 20 farms that don't have odor control. Some people in the community are frustrated and that's understandable. What's unfortunate is that this group seems to be going after the compliant ones that have the odor control.

Gray: Where are the main cannabis areas of Santa Barbara County, compared to the main wine growing areas?

Shelton: The wine industry is up in the northern part of the county. They have their own issues with cannabis because odor control is not required up there. But it is affecting the wine industry because the odor can be in the air for miles.

Gray: I've been reading that the cannabis growing industry has expanded so much that there's a risk of a glut of weed with not enough buyers. Are you seeing that?

Shelton: There's always a risk of too many cultivators and not enough market for it. Cannabis is just like any other market. It shifts. In cannabis, the outdoor market peaks in October. They have one harvest, all year. And the product floods into the market and prices just plummet at that time. Then in the spring, the outdoor product starts to go away and the prices start to go up again and the market starts to go up again. We've seen this before. Right now we're in spring/summer. Prices just keep going up up up. We get calls all day (from buyers).

Gray: Is there still a lot of competition from unlicensed growers?

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Some countries' wine is not as green as you think

Is this vineyard environmentally friendly? If it's not certified organic, how would I know? Answer: I wouldn't.
New Zealand has built its wine export business in the US on two things: a potent, tropical style of Sauvignon Blanc, and a green image.

At least one of those is true.

The American Association of Wine Economists released a simple statistical tweet yesterday, Organic Share of National Grape Area. It is what it sounds like: the percentage of organic vineyards for each country.

It's far from a perfect stat. First, it includes both table grapes and wine grapes. This helps some nations that take their foods seriously, while hurting the U.S.

Second, it's only certified organic vineyards. I can hear New Zealand's protest as I type this, "But we're sustainable." (Whatever that means.)

And third, it's not an indictment of any single grapegrower or winery. Just because Portugal has the lowest percentage of organic grapes of any major wine-producing nation doesn't mean there aren't some Portuguese vineyards doing all the right things for their customers and the Earth.

With those provisos out of the way, here are some shocking takeaways, after the table itself:

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The adventures of opening bottles, starring Speyburn's father's day package

After I applied antibiotic ointment to my thumb, and put away my large toolkit with the wrenches and pliers, I sat down to enjoy Speyburn's father's day package gift.

The idea is appealing: a 750 ml bottle of Speyburn 10-year Scotch, and a 100 ml bottle of water from the same springs  the Scotch is made from. Scotch is not only distilled from water; it also is usually bottled with water to lower the alcohol percentage. Maybe I could taste the similarity?

First, though, I had to get the damn thing open. The Scotch is easy. There's a little plastic capsule, and a nice resealable cork closure. Somebody put some thought into packaging the Scotch.

The water, though -- it's a water hazard. The 100 ml bottle was sealed with a screw cap and a jagged piece of metal  extended from it. I tried very gently turning it; nothing. I  grabbed it with a towel and turned it; nothing. I whacked the screwcap with a butter knife a few times and then tried turning it (pro tip: this often works on recalcitrant wine bottles.) Nothing. So I got out the tool kit.

Eventually, using an adjustable wrench, I was able to get the water bottle open. Writing about wine and spirits is fun because you learn a little about a lot of things. I know that a screwcapping machine must be precisely calibrated. For a run of 100,000 bottles of cheap rosé, it's important to get it right. But for a few 100 ml bottles of spring water for a whisky promotion, it just wasn't well-sealed. I don't know how I cut my thumb, but it wasn't serious; a little Scotch and water would be fine medicine.

I like Speyburn, a Speyside Scotch with a gentle mouthfeel and a judicious amount of peat. It's very good value at under $30 in a world where whisky prices keep going up. It's not the most complex dram you'll find but it's balanced enough to drink straight, yet not so expensive that I feel bad about having it in a Rob Roy or a current fave, a Rusty Nail (somebody sent me a bottle of Drambuie and it's making frequent appearances in my NBA playoff cocktails. I like to imagine Draymond Green barking at the referees in a Scottish accent. Fewer technicals if they can't understand him.)

I tasted the water, and thought, well, that's good water. It has depth and some body. I don't taste Speyburn in it -- in fact I taste very little -- but I like the mouthfeel and can see why one would want to add this to Scotch.

Then I read the fine print on the hazardous 100 ml bottle of water: "Uisge Source waters come from springs close to the popular distilleries in the whisky regions of Scotland. From the Cairngorms Well in Moray comes a soft, low mineral water, typical of the waters used by Scotland's Speyburn Distilleries."

Well that just destroys the whole illusion of water-Scotch relationship, doesn't it? First, Speyburn distilleries, plural. Second, it's just water from some well in the area.  I risked injury for just some neighborhood water? It's like going to see the Loch Ness Monster and getting a sodden Bigfoot instead. It's not the same!

I'm sipping some Speyburn neat as I type this, and I am feeling mollified. It's still a nice looking-package and it probably works as a father's day gift because 1) Your dad won't read the fine print, and 2) When you tell him he'll need his tool kit to open it, that's a feature, not a bug.

Buy the gift package here. 

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

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Zos Halo wine preserver is a worthless gadget

I'll keep this brief. The Zos Halo wine preserver, which purports to preserve an open bottle of wine by removing the oxygen from it, is a worthless high-tech gadget.

I have tried two Zos Halos, both supplied by the company for review, and did not find any practical use for either of them.

In both, short battery life was a problem. My first Halo lasted only one use, a bottle of wine that I tried to preserve for two weeks. The battery failed and so did the wine, which tasted flat.

For the second Halo, I tried using it for shorter periods of two or three days. The two LR 44 batteries still only lasted for 16 total days of use. You could work with that if there was a benefit.

But I didn't taste any. I tried opening two identical bottles of wine, pouring out half of each and resealing the bottles. One bottle I sealed with the Zos Halo. The other I sealed by sticking the cork back in.

After two days, I detected no difference. After three days, I detected no difference. After a week, they were slightly different -- but neither tasted fresh enough for me to want to drink it. 

Zos has been heavily pitching this gadget as a gift for weddings or Mother's Day. It's understandable: it's not as expensive as a Coravin, and in theory it's more permanent than a bottle of wine.

But it's junk. If you give it as a gift the recipient will play with it for a bottle or two and then put it in the back of a dusty closet and forget it forever. Maybe this is true of most wedding gifts: ice cream makers, bread slicers. But at least those work.

I intended to review this gadget for Wine Searcher because if it worked, it would be a great boon to enophiles. Instead, I am doing my civic duty with this post. Don't waste your money on a Zos Halo.

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

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Shocking consensus winner in 1978 comparative tasting

At harvest time in September 1978, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin signed a historic peace pact
Last month I was invited to a blind tasting in Seattle of 1978 Bordeaux-style reds. The wines had all been purchased from a man who stored them in perfect conditions in an underground cellar.

Doug Charles
Doug Charles, co-owner of the suburban wine shop Compass Wines, bought the whole collection when the owner decided quite suddenly to sell his house. Charles said the wines had been bought for drinking, not investing, and there were many one-of-a-kind bottles. He'll sell most of them at Compass but he noticed that he had 10 single bottles from 1978 and thought it would be interesting to invite some industry folks.

I'm not sure how I rated an invite. I sat next to Bob Betz, who had been an assistant winemaker at Chateau Ste Michelle at the time and worked on some of the wines in the tasting. Gary Figgins, founder of Leonetti Cellar, was also there. Leonetti's 1978 Cabernet put Washington state on the world wine map when Wine & Spirits called it the best Cabernet in the world. It's nice to be the least dignified guest.

Gary Figgins
We had two Bordeaux second-growths:
Chateau Montrose Saint-Estèphe 1978 (no back label; no alcohol statement)
Grand Vin de Leoville du Marquis de Las Cases Saint-Julien 1978 (11 to 14% alcohol)

Four wines from Washington:
Chateau Ste Michelle Washington State Cabernet Sauvignon 1978 (12 1/2%)
Chateau Ste Michelle Washington State Merlot 1978 (12%)
Leonetti Cellar Washington State Cabernet Sauvignon 1978 (13%)
Ste. Michelle Chateau Reserve Cold Creek Vineyards Benton County Washington Cabernet Sauvignon 1978 (12 1/2%)

And four California wines:
Charles Krug Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 1978 (12%)
Franciscan Vineyards Estate Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 1978 (12.9%)
Louis M. Martini Private Reserve California Cabernet Sauvignon 1978 (12 1/2%)
Sebastiani North Coast Counties Cabernet Sauvignon 1978 (12.9%)

Nobody billed this as The Judgment of Seattle because nobody can claim that these were the very best wines from California and Bordeaux at the time. The two Bordeaux second-growths were well-regarded, as was Louis Martini Private Reserve. But they weren't carefully chosen to represent their areas: they just happened to be the one-off bottles this particular collector had left.

As for the Washington wines, Leonetti, unknown on its release, became a superstar, and Ste Michelle's "Chateau Reserve" line was its high end at the time. But the two other Chateau Ste Michelle wines were their supermarket line, which Charles believes were priced under $5. The Sebastiani was also probably in that price range; the others would have cost more.

Most of the experts, including me, tried to pinpoint which wines were which and often failed. But not always. One wine was bretty as hell, with no other flavors remaining, and we all correctly deduced that it was French.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

What the Aquilinis are up to on Red Mountain

Aquilini Brands president Barry Olivier
Since 2013, when a mysterious man in a turban outbid a host of wineries at an auction for 670 acres of unplanted land on Red Mountain, the Washington wine industry has been wondering: who the heck are these people, and what are they up to?

The man in a turban, whose name I do not know, worked for the Aquilinis, a Canadian family of billionaires that owns the Vancouver Canucks hockey team and its arena. They're reportedly the world's largest farmers and processors of blueberries and cranberries, and they also own real-estate developments and several fine-dining restaurants in Vancouver. (Here are more details on Francesco Aquilini's Wikipedia page.)

But this is their first foray into wine, and it's a huge one, with important implications for the Washington wine industry. The Red Mountain AVA is Washington's trendiest region, responsible for many of its highest-rated wines. But Red Mountain is tiny: only 4040 acres total, with about 2400 planted. Of the Aquilinis' 670 acres, 535 are in the AVA. The Aquilinis are now Red Mountain's largest grape farmers by volume, and they will play a huge role in determining how Red Mountain is perceived in the future.

But when the Aquilinis harvested their first crop last year, they couldn't find buyers because they have so few contacts in the industry.

Hence this blog post. I did a story for Wine-Searcher about Red Mountain AVA for consumers because the wines merit it. This post is basically for the Washington wine industry. I spent a whole day with both Aquilini vineyard teams last month. Everybody else I talked to before or after asked, what are the Aquilinis up to? Well, I'll tell you.

There are two separate Aquilini wine operations

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Truly great old-vine Grenache for Pinot Noir lovers

Like growing grapes on the beach: Yangarra's High Sands vineyard. Courtesy Drinkster
Grenache is a wine I rarely order. To me, when it's good, it's meh. I like Grenache rosé, but too often I find varietal Grenache red wine to be high-alcohol fruit punch: nothing wrong with it, but I can drink better.

When Grenache is great, though, it's phenomenal. It's like a great Pinot Noir in that it's medium-bodied, not overpowering, but with pretty fruit and good complexity. Ordinary Grenache is a change-of-pace wine for fans of Zinfandel and Shiraz. Great Grenache is very rare, but it's special.

"John Alban told me, 'Everybody wants to make Pinot Noir. It's an overindulged princess'," said Richard Betts MS, who sold some other wine projects to buy an old Grenache vineyard.

In contrast, great Grenache is a commoner who grows up to be queen. I'll never forget the first time I had Château Rayas. I didn't know Grenache could be that good. But Rayas averages $680 a bottle on Wine-Searcher, and that price is actually going up with each new release.

The price for Rayas gives a little context for the five outstanding Grenaches I'm about to recommend.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Vintners behaving badly: Huneeus charged in college admissions bribery case

Agustin Francisco Huneeus. From his company's website
This is a story of wealth and privilege, and how a public appearance last week by a man fighting a proposed Napa County environmental law ended up being surprisingly prophetic.

The federal case is so big -- 50 people were charged in six states -- that most individual details will be skimmed over. Here, I'm going to present some transcripts from conversations taped by law enforcement to show exactly what one man is accused of doing.

Agustin Francisco Huneeus, 53, president of Huneeus Vintners, was charged Tuesday in the college admissions bribery case filed by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Huneeus, charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud, is a very successful vintner. His father built Concha y Toro from a small winery into Chile's largest. Huneeus himself was chief executive of Constellation Brands' fine-wine division before forming Huneeus Vintners with his father in 2004. The company owns Quintessa in Napa Valley as well as Flowers in Sonoma County and Benton-Lane in Oregon.

I like Huneeus; he has a rakish charm. My wife was dismayed when she learned he had been charged; she remembers his kindness and sense of humor. And I like his company's wines. All three of its main wineries are known for the kind of high-quality balanced wines I most enjoy.

He has a problem now, though, that goes beyond the charges themselves.

More than 90 percent of people charged with a federal crime plead guilty. And the great majority of people who plead not guilty are found guilty. The federal court system is stacked against defendants, way more than state courts.

But Huneeus has good reason to fight the charges, despite the odds. If he is found guilty of a felony, he may be forced to divest himself of the wine business he has helped build. State and federal laws differ on this, and I am not a legal expert; this is a question for another day.

For today, the question is, how bad is it for a parent to try to help his kid at any cost?

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Let's awamori! Okinawa's native drink finds a home in San Francisco

Modern awamori production; not so different from pre-WWII (see below). Courtesy Voyagin
Yoshi Tome
Awamori is a really interesting beverage, historically and culturally. Yoshi Tome, owner of one of the most successful sushi restaurants in the San Francisco bay area, has decided to refocus one restaurant's menu to show it off.

Tome has owned Sushi Ran in Sausalito since 1986. The fine sake list at Sushi Ran has been, for many area residents, their first introduction to premium sake. But sake is not where his heart lies drink-wise.

Tome is from Okinawa, where awamori is the traditional drink of choice. He is a fan; he likes to relax with a glass of very well-aged awamori from his private stash.

Awamori suffered from World War II as much as any cultural product and has still not really recovered. But we have come to an era in liquor appreciation where what was once seen as its greatest weakness -- single distillation, instead of double -- may now have become a strength.

When Tome left Japan for the U.S., awamori was at its lowest ebb ever. Japanese made fun of it as firewater; a more primitive version of shochu, which was just beginning to rise in popularity.

This was an era when Japanese looked down on Okinawa in general. The onetime independent island nation of Ryukyu was annexed by Japan in 1868. U.S. forces took the islands in extremely bloody fighting in 1945 that killed one-third of the civilian population. The U.S. ruled Okinawa until 1972, when we handed it back to Japan. Okinawa had an independence movement (and still does) but Japanese in Tokyo tended to look paternalistically on the islands; not until the Okinawan music scene caught on throughout Japan did the islands really get respect.