Monday, June 15, 2020

Four Black Gallo Employees Talk About Racism and Progress in the Wine Industry

Last week I had a conversation with four black Gallo employees. It's remarkable that it happened.

First, as I say during the conversation, Gallo is extremely media-shy. I have been not working with them on stories for years. It usually goes like this: I send them questions, and their PR staff very politely declines to answer. They have lightened up some in the last decade, but I have asked for certain interviews for years (Hi, Gina Gallo, my phone line is always open) and always been rebuffed.

Second, the way that it happened. Gallo put out a statement about Black Lives Matter. I thought it was just another feel-good statement like other big companies were making, so I wrote this on Twitter:



I  followed up with an email to an unnamed Gallo PR rep so that he knew I was serious. It was a public call-out, but I was serious, and the rep -- I have to refer to him in the transcript, and he wouldn't let me give him a nickname even though I offered Mr. Big, Tiger Shark and Señor Sensational, so let's just use the acronym UGPR -- also took it seriously. He asked for volunteers within the company, and he came up with four. He sent me their CVs so I knew who I would be talking to.

UGPR sat in on and recorded the 5-way conversation, which I am grateful for because I learned I don't type fast enough. I promised not to publish the video, and I don't regret this because people speak differently when they know they might be seen later. I wanted something more casual, where everyone could express whatever they wanted to.

We spoke for 54 minutes. I debated on how to edit the transcript and then just decided to run the whole thing. There's a fair amount of pro-Gallo PR, but maybe Gallo deserves it. I talk to a lot of people in the wine industry and I hear a lot of things I never dream of publishing. What I don't hear is people who worked for Gallo, complaining about Gallo. People at wineries that Gallo has bought generally seem happy with how they have been treated. And specifically in the case of creating the Gallo African American Network (GAAN), which you will read a lot about in the transcript, Gallo does deserve praise.

One thing that occurred to me when we talked about Gallo's marketing outreach is this: Maybe Gallo is taking these marketing initiatives simply because it's a good way to sell more wine. Because reaching out to black consumers is simply good practice to make money.

And then I thought, well, if it's simply good marketing practice, why don't all companies do more of it? Businesses can learn a lot from Gallo.

That, in fact, has probably been a factor behind Gallo's decades-long avoidance of the press. They don't want to share their secrets for success. And Gallo has always been successful: it's the world's largest wine company, and has successfully moved from the bottom shelf to the top, with purchases such as Stagecoach Vineyard in Napa and Talbott Vineyards on the Central Coast. Gallo dominates the U.S. Prosecco market with La Marca. They turned Barefoot into the biggest brand in the world. It's a big company and they're doing a lot of things right that they don't want to tell you about.

But they decided they do want to tell you about GAAN and their other diversity programs, and moreover they decided to let four of their employees (not Modesto-based executives) and myself -- wild cards all, really -- tell the story rather than telling it themselves. I tip my hat to Gallo for this.

Rather than write a story about our conversation, thus putting my voice foremost, I'm just going to run the transcript, very lightly edited. Let me introduce the speakers with a select portion of their CVs.


Wednesday, May 20, 2020

New video: Chris Howell of Cain and I talk about the meaning of wine

I've had this very interesting conversation sitting in my computer, aging for a few weeks, but now I believe it's ready for release.

There are three reasons I sat on this for so long, and none have anything to do with the quality of the conversation. Even in a thoughtful profession, Cain Vineyard and Winery winemaker Chris Howell is one of the more philosophical people you'll meet, and I always enjoy talking with him.

Chris puts me on the spot a couple times, making me define "red wine." He also asks for my wine origin story, which isn't a sexy one about some tiny Paris bistro. In fact I think the sommelier crowd will think less of me after hearing it. But that's still not why I held this video so long.

There are three reasons, in ascending order of importance, that this video got almost two extra months of computer aging:

3) My connection is excellent but Chris' sounds a little metallic at the beginning. It gets better, but I (still) fear people won't stay with it long enough to see that.

2) Levi Dalton did an excellent podcast with Chris while I was still worrying about point #1 below. "Well, I'll have to revisit this in a few weeks," I thought.

1) Most of my Intoxicating Conversations with W. Blake Gray are about the guest. This is the only one so far in which I did as much talking as the guest, and I was a little sheepish about it. People click to watch Chris Howell, not me! But since I just talked for an hour on the Real Biz Wine show (wearing the same shirt, even -- I do have more than one shirt), I got over that fear.

Now I need an agent! In the meantime, check out this conversation on the meaning of wine:




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Monday, May 18, 2020

An entire HOUR of W. Blake Gray talking on the Real Biz Wine videocast!

This is how I look with a haircut
Polly Hammond and Robert Joseph had me as their guest on their Real Biz Wine videocast on Friday. I have been doing some wine video chats of my own lately, and -- humblebrag -- I've been on TV in Japan a number of times, and not in my first language. But until last week I had not been the guest of honor for an entire hour.

We talked about a lot of issues. My recent Wine-Searcher column that the wine intelligentsia are almost always wrong was the starting point.

But we went deeper than that. We talked about what the wine media should do, regarding the balance between writing about wines we love versus wines the readers love (i.e., buttery Chardonnay.) And about whether the goodies wine writers get influence what we write.

Sonoma State wine business professor Damien Wilson called in to discuss how his students don't come to school prepared for the business realities of wine.

How big is the market for lower-alcohol wines? And how profitable is it? We talked about it.

I'm always the interviewer, rarely the interviewee, so this was an interesting change of pace for me. I hope you'll excuse the fact that I haven't had a haircut since early December. I also discovered I must have a little Italian in me because I like speaking with my hands.

I've had some nice emails from people since this ran, with one person telling me it was his favorite episode of the show so far. I don't know; when I watched it I saw a guy with an awful lot of hair gesturing a lot. But Robert and Polly brought some interesting questions, and it seems like a worthy conversation. You be the judge.




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Friday, May 15, 2020

An actual conversation I had with a wine critic who judges on the 100-point-scale

I won't identify the wine critic in this conversation. I had this conversation a while ago; rediscovered it while cleaning out some old notebooks. I wrote it down but never had a place to put it in an article. So, here you go.

I'll call this professional 100-Point Critic "C100." To be clear, this person reviews wine (not sake) for a major publication, on the 100-point scale.

Here's the setting: We're blind-tasting sakes, not wines, so neither of us is rating them. We're just tasting, and talking after the reveal. C100 says they prefer more traditional styles of sake (yamahai or kimoto). I generally do too, but in this particular company's lineup, I most liked the sokujo (in which lactic acid is added rather than developed naturally.) I wasn't talking about preferring the sokujo method: I just liked this company's sokujo sake better than its kimoto. That's where we start.

Me: I like the sokujo best.

C100: They're different. You can't compare them. It depends on what you're eating or what the circumstances are. It's like comparing apples and oranges.

Me: People do that. Oranges are more acidic.

C100: You can't. It's like comparing New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to Savennières. You can't. They're different. You can compare a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to other New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, but you can't compare it to Savennières.

Me: But you can. And you do. Your publication exists to do that. That's what the 100-point scale does. You say this one's a 92, and that one's an 89.

C100: I can't have this discussion anymore.

And C100 stormed away from me.

And of course C100 won the argument, because C100 is still rating this one a 92, and that one an 89. But not comparing them. No, never, because YOU CAN'T.


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Monday, May 11, 2020

New video every wine retailer should see: Wine shop owner Frank Pagliaro

With my Intoxicating Conversation series I'm trying to cover all aspects of the wine industry, and right now arguably no one is more important than retailers. With restaurants closed, retail shops are your primary source of good wine and liquor, and they are busier than ever.

But that doesn't mean they don't have time for innovation. I'm impressed by some of the things Frank Pagliaro is doing, both to help his customers and to support restaurant workers.

Pagliaro is the owner of Franks Wine in Wilmington, Delaware, a fine shop that sells wine at all price levels. Frank is busier than ever right now, but he gave me 25 minutes of his time to talk about what's going on at his store.

One thing Frank is doing that other shops could consider: He is offering out-of-work bartenders, restaurant servers and others the chance to work as greeters at his store for tips. Doesn't cost him anything, and it seems to be working out for the greeters as well, as you'll hear in the video.


Wineries will want to hear what's selling, and the good news is: almost everything! Maybe it's temporary, but I think you'll want to hear Frank talking about how high-end wines are moving -- and low-end wines as well.

We don't talk about it in the video, but Frank has a second life. Sssh -- don't tell anyone: Frank Pagliaro, occasionally, is Batman.

But there is no butt-kicking in this video, though it might get a PG-13 for saucy language on promotional items. Look away, Aunt Harriet. The rest of you, check it out:




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Monday, May 4, 2020

New video: Badia a Coltibuono owner/winemaker Roberto Stucchi


I drank Chianti Classico at 9 a.m. because I had work to do. What's your excuse? There's a pandemic? Good excuse! Mine is that I had work to do ...

My Intoxicating Conversations series goes international today, as Roberto Stucchi joins me from Italy to talk about all things Chianti Classico.

We cover a number of the issues in the conversation, including the impact of global warming on Tuscany, and how he believes massal selection -- instead of trying to pick one perfect clone -- has allowed him to deal with it.

Roberto used 3 terms together that I did not believe could be used in the same sentence
We also talk about the ongoing push from some vignerons in the region toward labeling wines with subregions. I am, perhaps surprisingly, not really a fan, and I explain why in the video. Roberto counters with what he's not a fan of: the Gran Selezione category of Chianti Classicos, which was created to give the region a high end to compete with Brunello. (I used to be ambivalent about Gran Seleziones but I just reviewed them last month and they've come a long way.)

If you like this conversation, you might enjoy a tangential story Wine Searcher published over the weekend, in which I explain the nearby region of Terre di Pisa, which is on the other side of the city of Florence from Chianti Classico.

My wife and I ended up having the Badia a Coltibuono Chianti Classico shown in the video with rotisserie chicken and fried rice, and it was excellent. I confess it was also pretty good by itself at 9 a.m.

Check out the conversation below:




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Friday, May 1, 2020

Serendipity: Sauvignon Blanc day leads to a good kale recipe

Today is International Sauvignon Blanc day. Normally I ignore all these bogus holidays: I'm not going to let a marketer tell me I can't have a Manhattan on National Whiskey Sour Day. May 7 is apparently both National Homebrew Day AND National Cosmopolitan Day, and I'm not going to drink either (although if you want to have a Cosmo made with vodka from your home still, knock yourself out. Literally.)

But, like 15 other media people in the San Francisco Bay Area, I got a home delivery on Wednesday from New Zealand Winegrowers of a nice three-course seafood meal and four bottles of Sauvignon Blanc. I said I could tweet about it; nothing more. I will tweet for food -- but I'm not gonna give away a blog post THAT easily.

However. The NZ care package was the second food pickup I had on Wednesday. The first was a box of organic produce I ordered from Watsonville's Tomatero Farm. It's a good deal: $20, but you have to buy the box in advance and can't list likes or dislikes. We got some very nice strawberries, butter lettuce, baby broccoli, and other goodies. But we also got kale.

I hate kale.

Kale is like eating nutritional guilt. It's what your parents try to sneak into recipes to add vitamins to foods that would be tastier without kale. It has no redeeming virtues except that it's really good for you.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Americans in Burgundy offer a great way to buy Burgundy wines online

Burgundy residents Eleanor Garvin and Dennis Sherman of Elden Selections
Rarely will I blog about an online wine club or store. It has to be special, or I would tell you to just go to Wine-Searcher, where I am US Editor, and which puts almost all the nation's wine stores at your fingertips.

I think Elden Selections is something special. Based in Burgundy but run by Americans, Elden is an online-only wine shop that offers a relatively narrow but deep selection of Burgundies made by small producers. The company, which ships throughout the U.S., specializes in "affordable" Burgundies -- it has 30 wines under $35 -- though its strength is wines priced a little above that, about $50-$60.

Here's what I mean by narrow but deep: Elden offers wine from only 33 producers. But, from each of those producers, it offers multiple wines. Moreover, the Elden website offers the kind of context that you rarely get from Burgundy.


Monday, April 27, 2020

New video: Adam Lee of Siduri and Clarice talks about fermenting in concrete

I've been talking -- and arguing -- with Siduri founding winemaker Adam Lee for almost as long as I've been writing about wine. Fortunately both of us enjoy a good argument. Sometimes he shows me I'm not as astute as I think (check out the "before" photo in that link).

I've always enjoyed talking with Adam because he's smart, he's candid, he's willing to engage on multiple topics, and he doesn't hold a grudge. At least not against me. That I know of.

In the last few years, Adam has quietly had a major philosophical shift in his approach to winemaking, which we get into in the video.

Adam sold the Siduri brand to Jackson Family Wines a few years ago and his contract with Siduri expires in June. When I learned he was making a new Pinot Noir for Jackson Family called Root & Rubble that is fermented and aged in concrete, I wanted to talk with him about it.

I'm a fan of wines fermented in concrete, but in the U.S. it's rare for red wines. We talk about the trip he took to Châteauneuf-du-Pape that gave him the inspiration (in that region they call Grenache the Pinot Noir of the Rhône), and what he learned.

We also talk about how aquarium heaters and electric blankets are important winemaking tools. And we learn why winemakers at today's small wineries curse Thomas Jefferson.



At the end of the conversation, Adam talks about his own label Clarice. It's an interesting departure for him. Siduri has always been known for making the wines as ripe as the terroir and season demand. With Clarice, he is using two Santa Lucia Highlands vineyards known for very ripe wines and picking not only earlier: He's intentionally picking several sections of the vineyard at differing levels of ripeness on the same day. He calls it a "purposeful Pinot Noir field blend."

We had this conversation a few weeks ago. I waited to publish it until I could try the Clarice wines. They're good: the Clarice wine from Garys' Vineyard showed a complexity and restraint that I hadn't really experienced before from that very famous source of fruit-forward Pinot Noir.

I really miss conversations like this; they're one of the treats of writing and talking about wine. Hope you enjoy this conversation as well.




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Wednesday, April 22, 2020

New video: UC Davis enology professor Dr. Andrew Waterhouse

When I was an undergrad, my favorite lecturers felt like rock stars to me. Little did I know it felt that way to them also.

For my latest Intoxicating Conversation, I chat with UC Davis professor Dr. Andrew Waterhouse. Dr. Waterhouse is Director of the Robert Mondavi Institute of Wine & Food Science at UC Davis and he has been very patient with me over the years when I have contacted him with some goofball question.

For example, last year, after reading "The Poison Squad," a book about the earliest days of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), I wondered about something that the FDA's original chemist worried about but never researched: whether sulfites have a cumulative effect on the human body when you consume them over time.

Most people would just fret about it, write a conspiracy-theory blog post, or order a Goop product. I sent Dr. Waterhouse an email. And he answered my question! He took it very seriously, and cited some research. Here's his conclusion:

"Our bodies process 1000 mg of sulfites per day. The 10 mg or so in a glass of wine would hardly overload the system. A small extra load like this would not be expected to lead to some sort of cumulative toxicity. And, as the (National Institute of Health) paper showed, they were not able to show a reaction to sulfites even by sensitive subjects except at the highest level. 
The early toxicologists might have been concerned because the metabolic pathway for sulfites wasn’t described until the 20th century. 
On the broader issues of toxicants in our environment, I feel we should require some sort of testing before any chemical is released into our environment at significant levels. The Europeans are approaching this standard, but in the US, we allow the production of almost anything, and wait to see what happens."
So, about that professors-as-rock-stars analogy: We talk about a few interesting things in the conversation, like how UC Davis is still able to hold required-for-graduation wine-tasting classes without any actual wine tasting. (By the way, students, your professors know whether or not you're attending virtual class.) And how students' favorite class is not the same without the barbecue afterward.




But the most interesting thing, to me, is when he tells how difficult it is to lecture without a live audience. Mick Jagger would no doubt say the same thing. But what does Mick know about phenolic compounds?




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Monday, April 20, 2020

New video: Autumn Shelton, organic cannabis grower

Autumn Shelton runs a pesticide-free cannabis warehouse in Santa Barbara County. She joins me today to talk about a wide range of issues in the cannabis industry.

If you're worried about a cannabis shortage because of the pandemic, don't be. (Whew.) Gov. Gavin Newsom declared cannabis an essential industry, so they can keep growing it, which is good, because it's better than alcohol for dealing with anxiety.

Santa Barbara County is increasingly important for cannabis and Shelton explains that the reasons are some of the same terroir-based reasons that it's good for wine.

If you're fairly new to ordering cannabis online, Shelton has some advice for you. We talk about why CBD is not as effective without THC, which might make you rethink some of the glitzier products on the market. We also talk about the monthly swings in price and availability of cannabis, so you can learn when to stock up and when to wait for prices to drop.


Longtime tokers might be interested in some of the farming questions. Do you get more crop from more smaller plants, or fewer larger ones? (Actually I don't know if longtime tokers will care but I wanted to know.)

It seems like a cliché to publish this conversation on 4/20, but whatever ... I know what I plan to do later today. As for your plans, I hope watching this video is in them. Happy 4/20!




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Thursday, April 16, 2020

New video: Lise Asimont, vineyard consultant

For my latest Intoxicating Conversation, I wanted to know about the state of vineyard labor in Sonoma and Napa Counties. So I asked someone who knows that topic very well: independent vineyard consultant Lise Asimont. And she didn't disappoint: she called around to vineyard managers around the state to prepare herself for the conversation.

Asimont, as you will see, is very impressive. She gives a frank rundown of many of the current issues with farm labor, including the closing of the US Embassy in Mexico for interviews for new workers, and how it would be for out-of-work restaurant staffers to transition to working in vineyards. But vineyard owners have to do the work now because the vines won't wait.

"Just because we have a pandemic doesn't mean that nature has stopped," she says.

Lise talks fast because she has a lot to say. She talks about how vineyards will have to consider more mechanization, but not necessarily for harvesting, and how her neighbors in Healdsburg give her dirty looks sometimes when they see her getting in her car to go out every morning. Presumably they just cannot imagine this woman running around vineyards getting her hands dirty.


Perhaps my favorite part of the conversation is when she tells me a story I hadn't heard before, about how the daughter of two physician parents -- her mother is a groundbreaking physician from the Philippines, and she is a first-generation American -- became a vineyard savant. You might be surprised (I was) when you find out how her parents reacted when she informed them she wasn't going to medical school.

It wouldn't be a conversation with Lise Asimont if she didn't pack 45 minutes of information into 30 minutes. Check it out!



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Tuesday, April 14, 2020

New video: Jason Haas, general manager of Tablas Creek, on the art and commerce of blending

For producers of Rhone-style wines, blending is one of the most important things they do. Tablas Creek, one of the foremost producers of Rhone wines in the US (it's co-owned by the owners of France's Château de Beaucastel), has 15 different Rhone grapes planted. How do they decide which grapes go into which wines?

Jason Haas, Tablas Creek general manager, explains that it's not just a decision about what makes the most delicious wine. When you only have 3 barrels of Clairette, what's the best way to use it -- in the high-end blend, or as a single-variety wine to sell to the wine club?

Jason is extremely frank in this discussion, as befits a man who not only runs one of the best wineries in Paso Robles, but is also one of the best wine-industry bloggers. (Here's the Tablas Creek blog if you want to check it out.) I learned some things, and no matter what your level of wine knowledge, you might learn something too. For example, did you know that Syrah is a bully?


I have one big regret about this conversation, and that's that Jason was holding out on me.



Sadie was apparently there the whole time, but you'll have to look really sharp if you want to see her brief foray into the background. We're not using Zoom backgrounds: That's really my living room, and that's really Jason's back yard. But we don't have enough Sadie. Everybody needs more Sadie.




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Wednesday, April 8, 2020

New video: Winegrower Chad Melville

I could say, "in the latest Intoxicating Conversation with W. Blake Gray," but in fact this is the first one I recorded, last month.

Chad Melville, head winegrower at Melville Winery in the well-regarded Pinot Noir appellation Sta. Rita Hills, joins me to talk about why it's essential for wineries and vineyards to stay open, even during a pandemic.

Chad gives us an extremely practical lesson in planting grapevines, whether on their own roots (which he does, even though the dreaded vine killer phylloxera is present in Santa Barbara County) or on American rootstock.

We also learn about what happens if you leave a wine on the lees while the lees get stinky.


Because it's the first video recorded, I haven't learned to smile yet (arguably I still haven't.) But we did have the advantage of recording a prior take on which the video cut out because Chad tried to take the computer outside to show the rootstock. This is the only one of these videos where I have done a second take. It worked out for the best; we were both less nervous on this one. On the first one, we were talking too fast, talking over each other ... but on this one, we look like Zoom professionals. Right? (Don't answer that.)



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Monday, April 6, 2020

New video: Wine PR professional Katherine Jarvis

These are tricky times for people in the marketing and publicity business. Wineries gotta sell wine, and publicists are part of the ecosystem of selling wine. But, how can they strike the right tone in reaching out to media and the general public during a pandemic?

Today Katherine Jarvis, owner of Jarvis Communications in Los Angeles, joins me for an Intoxicating Conversation with W. Blake Gray.

Katherine and I talk not just about publicity during the pandemic, but how the world of wine PR works, both from her side and from mine.

One thing I have learned while writing about wine is that, while for some people wine PR is a step on a ladder, the dedicated professionals are wine lovers first; it's why they do it.

I gotta confess I'm releasing this video into the world with a little trepidation, because there are a number of really excellent wine PR people I could have asked to do it. Now I understand a little about how Katherine must feel when she has a story to pitch: how can I play favorites?


Katherine told me after the video that she had never heard her own voice recorded before. She has always been behind the scenes. I hadn't even considered that. Me, I'm a Z-list at best celebrity, but I have been on radio dozens of times and I've been on TV in four countries.

Funny story that we don't talk about in the video: NHK, Japan's national broadcaster, sent a limo for me once to come to the studio in Harajuku, Tokyo, to talk about Christmas in America, in Japanese of course. Well, I can do that, I thought. I was all ready to talk about Christmas lights and baking cookies and presents under the tree, etc. Then the red light went on -- we were live -- and the host said, "We have here Blake Gray who is an expert on Christmas in New York, and he's going to talk about the preparations going on in New York right now." I have never been to New York for Christmas! And Japanese is not my first language. I don't remember what I said -- Macy's window, Times Square, homeless people with a coating of gray snow, I really don't remember -- but somehow I got through it. Hopefully I didn't do that to Katherine. But you be the judge.





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Wednesday, April 1, 2020

New video: Schramsberg's Hugh Davies

Schramsberg Vineyards President Hugh Davies joins me for an Intoxicating Conversation with W. Blake Gray, and this time it's literally true because we have two bottles open.

Schramsberg has a track record as the best U.S. producer of top-quality sparkling wine; I have been a fan for years.

The story of Hugh's parents Jack and Jamie Davies is very much the story of modern Napa Valley: they bought an abandoned winery on Diamond Mountain in the 1960s to make premium sparkling wine, and eventually discovered that while their land is special terroir, it's not great for sparkling wine grapes.

Among other things, Hugh and I talk about drinking, and selling, sparkling wine during a pandemic. We compare glassware and talk about how California has a flavor profile for sparkling wine that might be more approachable for many American drinkers than that of Champagne. I am not knocking Champagne; my wife and I just opened a bottle of that earlier this week. But U.S. sparkling wine has its own unique charms.

There's no blooper reel for these Intoxicating Conversations so here's a blooper confession. These conversations are unedited: we just power through whatever happens. In part this is because I am not a power user of the technology. When Hugh and I started the meeting, I couldn't hear him. He could hear me, but I couldn't hear him at all. He found a younger person at the winery (always a good idea when you have a technology problem) and she fiddled with many things on the computer, but still I couldn't hear.

Then I realized I had the volume on my own computer off. Ooops! The woman gave me a look like Billie Eilish at the Oscars. Well, no harm done, and Hugh and I had our conversation.

If you're interested in the wines we enjoy during the conversation, it's Schramsberg J Schram Brut 2010 (buy it here) and J. Davies Diamond Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 (buy it here).

I hope you are enjoying these conversations. More are on the way!



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Monday, March 30, 2020

New video: Rob McMillan talks about the future of the wine industry

In the latest edition of Intoxicating Conversation with W. Blake Gray, I welcome Rob McMillan, one of the leading experts on the business of wine, to talk about how the wine industry is and will be affected by the pandemic.

Rob is Executive Vice President of Silicon Valley Bank's Wine Division, and he is well known for his annual State of the Wine Industry presentations.

So much has changed since he gave his last presentation in January that I thought it was time for an update.

Rob and I talk about the trends we see already, such as wine shipments and certain types of retail sales being up, as well as the impact of the disastrous situation for restaurants. We also talk about the availability of labor, and whether many wineries will be sale when this pandemic finally eases.

I was hoping for these completely unedited conversations to be roughly 25 minutes; that's the email I'm sending to potential guests. I wasn't watching the clock so I have to give Rob the credit: precisely 25 minutes. That's the kind of precision one expects from Rob McMillan. And good conversation too.

I have more of these conversations recorded so you might want to subscribe to my Youtube channel.

Take it away, Rob! Your background is nicer than mine. (That probably is true on multiple levels.)


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Thursday, March 26, 2020

Thank You Heitz, you are so generous! Please don't call me anymore

Many companies are stepping up to help their community during this pandemic. Some are doing it quietly.

Not Heitz Cellar. Its PR firm called me at 6:30 am on Wednesday after I said I wasn't interested in giving it publicity for its charity.

Well, you win, Heitz. How can I resist the entreaties of a company generous enough to not fire anyone in the FIRST TWO DAYS of Napa County's lockdown. Heitz is still open for business on the Internet, selling wines at $250 a bottle. But the company wants praise for not canning its tasting room staff at the first opportunity. 

Thank you, Heitz! Thank you for not firing anybody this week! You're so great!

Let me back up a bit and tell you how this started.

Like everyone on the planet, I have been deluged by emails lately from businesses telling me about the steps they're taking about the pandemic. Nearly all are worthless corporate speak and I'm not responding to them.

Heitz's email of Mar. 20 was arrogant, but I ignored it like all the others. Let me post it here in its entirety, since that's what they want.


Wednesday, March 25, 2020

New video series: Intoxicating Conversation With W. Blake Gray

Conversation brings us together. The further we feel apart, the more we need a connection.

Today I launch a new video series: Intoxicating Conversation With W. Blake Gray

People need entertainment. Many crave information about wine, or whisky, or cannabis, and of course not just those. But you can get information in print. For conversation, just two people talking, wherever it goes, you need video.

And I believe that now more than ever, we need conversation. We need connection.

I'm speaking pretty ambitiously for a novice video journalist. I've been a print and online journalist since university, specializing in wine, spirits and cannabis for the last 16 years. I might have a face for radio and a voice for newspaper. Plus, I realized recently I probably won't be able to get a haircut for months.

Whatever. It's time for this.

Wine draws interesting people. Winemakers, the good ones, are a cross of scientist and artist. Farming wine grapes isn't like producing any other fruit. I've had so many intoxicating conversations regarding it, many with the guests you'll see in this series.

I was sheepish about asking my inaugural guest, Laura Catena, to do this. She's busy running harvest at her family's winery in Argentina, Catena Zapata, from her home in San Francisco, where she is stuck for the time being because Argentina has closed its borders.

But Laura was my dream first guest, so I asked anyway. And my dream came true: she agreed right away.

Laura is very impressive. For 30 years, she was an emergency room physician in San Francisco, specializing in emergency care for children. At the same time, she was helping her father run the family winery. Catena Zapata makes a lot of excellent wines. But I think its strength in the US was having Laura living here. Amazingly, she sometimes found free time from her medical duties AND raising children to jet off and do tastings for sommeliers, journalists and wine lovers. She's scientifically minded, and she's also a positive person who enjoys life.

At the end of last year she quit her ER job to focus on the winery; she talks about it in the video. You or I might think, wow, great timing. I'll let her tell you what she thinks.

As for the rest of the series, I'll do my best. 頑張ります. (To see more, subscribe to my Youtube channel.)

Here goes: Intoxicating Conversation With W. Blake Gray: Laura Catena, ER doctor and winery managing director



Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and Instagram @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.
And subscribe to my Youtube channel!

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Wine, the corona virus, and the wisdom of George W. Bush

After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, President George W. Bush encouraged Americans not to be afraid to go on with their lives, including going shopping. He was immediately mocked for it, and still was years later. Here's a ridiculous piece from Time magazine in 2009, on the last day of his presidency, that says he should instead have called for sacrifice.

But he wasn't wrong.

There are now adult Americans who don't remember the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The destruction of the World Trade Center wasn't the only terrorist attack that autumn. Just a week later letters filled with weaponized anthrax spores were mailed to lawmakers and journalists. CNN and Fox News were competing to see which could be more hysterical. People were convinced that every shopping mall was a target. Bush wanted Americans to keep living life and not bring down the economy, which was the terrorists' objective.

He was mocked because our politics were the same as now. Half the country (including me) hated Bush, and that half, as now, included all the smartest and most interesting writers and commentators. "Going shopping" wasn't a serious enough response for a serious crisis and proved Bush was in over his head, was the argument. Then as now, it was nearly impossible to acknowledge when somebody on the other side of the political divide actually got something right.

Bush was right. We needed to spend money so that our consumer-based economy wouldn't collapse, so that people wouldn't lose their jobs and bring about an economic depression. We also needed a military response, and unfortunately he didn't get that right. But he was right about the shopping: It was one small thing that every American could to support our way of life.

I'm among the half of Americans who cheered out loud when Bush's helicopter carried him away from the White House in 2009. If you had told me that a scant 10 years later I would miss him I would have laughed in your face. But here we are.

The wine industry is going to be hurt very badly by the corona virus pandemic. It's not alone: almost every industry other than the hand sanitizer business is going to be hurt.

People are already staying home, which is sensible. But many restaurants will fail because of this. Ordering food delivered won't help them as much because they don't make as much money on it. Many restaurants survive on the margins they make by overcharging us for wine. And ordering food delivered won't help restaurant servers who are living paycheck-to-paycheck. Restaurants failing is bad for wine.

Wine tourism is plummeting along with every other kind of tourism. Many wineries are dependent on sales from their tasting room. Some won't survive without it. Wine-country businesses like hotels and local transportation will suffer.

But, you say, people will drink wine at home.

Exactly!

Here is what you can do to help the wine industry fight through the looming recession: Keep buying wine.

This is true for most industries. But wine is more vulnerable than most. Vineyards take four years to develop and land prices are high. Distribution is complicated -- in parts of the country you still can't buy wine online -- and is skewed against small wineries, who large distributors would rather not carry. US wine importers are hurting because of the tariffs imposed from our trade war with the EU.

In 2008, after the last major recession (Bush was right about a few things but not about the costly Iraq war or about leaving the mortgage crisis untouched and festering), Americans kept drinking wine, but they spent a lot less on it. People started looking for good $10 wines again, which tends to help only the largest companies.

This will probably happen again as the pandemic leads to an economic slowdown. I'm not going to tell you to keep buying $300 Cabernets; you really can find wine just as good for $35 (but not for $10).

What I urge you to do is to buy wine mindfully. In hard times, each bottle you buy will support someone, whether it's publicly-traded Constellation Brands or that small winery you visited on vacation years ago where the staff was really nice to you. You can support a grocery store chain, or you can support your local wine shop, which is seeing fewer customers. You can support LVMH or the economy of a vulnerable country like Greece or South Africa.

This is the best thing you can do for the wine industry. Keep shopping, and shop with a purpose.

There's an expression I like to use: "Life is too short to drink bad wine." It's more true now than ever.

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

Monday, February 24, 2020

Endorsements for the March 2020 San Francisco election

This may be Nancy Pelosi's last primary
Welcome to Super Tuesday! For the first time in my lifetime California is going to play a major role in choosing a Presidential candidate. This is great because the diverse Golden State grapples with large issues better than most of the country. The Presidential primary alone makes this ballot an exciting one.

But there are other people and issues on the ballot, and I'm going to write about those, because you simply won't get much advice elsewhere.

For some reason the San Francisco Chronicle, after running its best endorsement page ever just a few months ago, has decided to put its endorsements behind a paywall. Why? I am very sympathetic to the need of newspapers to increase revenue, but I doubt that the Chronicle will gain 5 new subscribers with this strategy, and even 5 new subscribers wouldn't be worth it. Why limit the reach of your endorsements? Don't you want to share your knowledge and help elect the candidates you prefer?

Fortunately the very liberal San Francisco Bay Guardian is still doing online endorsements years after the print publication ceased. Thank you, Tim Redmond. I also drew on candidates' statements at votersedge.org, and stories from the Mercury News, 48 Hills, Mission Local and The Bay Area Reporter.

To the ballot!

President: I'll get back to this.

District 12, US House of Representatives: Nancy Pelosi

Pelosi has been a national, not local, figure for much of her time in the House and it will be nice to get a representative to pay attention to local issues again. She has had very limited success in opposing Trump despite the House Democratic majority. We love her dismissive gestures, but the decision not to impeach after the Mueller Report -- which was far more damning than the Ukraine fiasco -- hasn't been criticized enough. It might be time for new leadership in the House. But she doesn't have impressive opposition this time. If she retires as expected before 2022, this seat will be a free-for-all.


Monday, January 20, 2020

Intimidation and shame are holding wine back

Helen Rosner, food correspondent for the New Yorker, stirred up the wine Twitterverse last week by complaining about a page on a wine list.

Her actual complaint, which wasn't clear from her first tweet, wasn't that she couldn't understand the list. Instead, she is irritated when she calls a wine something (i.e., "the Benoît Ente") and the server responds by calling it something else ("Oh, you mean the Aligoté.")



Let's put the reach of this tweet, and all wine Twitter, in perspective. This was, for wine Twitter, an enormous tweet. She got 2900 likes (as of Saturday). Also in my Twitter feed as I write this, Congressman Ted Lieu got 191,000 likes for telling Devin Nunes to shove it. (Not enough likes.) The Hill got 7,100 likes for announcing that Donald Trump was repealing Michelle Obama's school lunch rules on her birthday. (People like that?) And Professor Snape (@_Snape_) got 2600 likes for posting, "Recent studies show I hate everything." Wine Twitter is still a fishbowl.

That said, Rosner took a blender to the fishbowl with her tweet, and her subsequent aggressive stance in arguing about it. It is the latter that strikes me.

Rosner is no shrinking violet. She's fully capable of having a conversation with a sommelier, obviously, because she's willing to argue with dozens of people simultaneously. What bothers her is that she doesn't want to experience in person, however briefly, the feeling of a server correcting her.


Monday, January 6, 2020

Result of a 10-year experiment: does filtering out brett work?

This blog post has been 10 years in the making.

A decade ago, I interviewed Cameron Hughes. He's a San Francisco-based wine negociant and I've interviewed him a bunch of times, but on that occasion, he said something -- and gave me a bottle -- that I wanted to test.

Hughes had bought a batch of 2008 Napa Cabernet that he said was full of brett, so much that the producer couldn't risk releasing it under its own name. He boasted that he sterile-filtered out all the brett and now he had a prestigious wine to sell.

What if you didn't get it all, I asked. Even a little brett in the bottle could increase over time.

Hughes told me if I checked the bottle in 10 years, I would find no brett. And he gave me a bottle.

Which I put away for a decade.

Last week I got it out of my cellar. And on Saturday night I opened it. What would I find?

***************

This is the part where I talk about how the world was different in 2010, when I put this bottle away.

The first iPad was sold in 2010. A DVD-by-mail company named Netflix introduced streaming video.