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.

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