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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And stay healthy.

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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