Wednesday, December 30, 2020

I am so proud of my worst 2020 stories about wine

I am immensely proud of the weakest stories I wrote in 2020. I was off my game for about half the year, and nobody told me they noticed.

People have noticed that I haven't been blogging, though, so here's why.

2020 was a difficult year for many people so I'm not special. I did not get Covid-19, fortunately, but I did have an abscess in my intestine that required two 8-day hospital stays and a very scary and painful (but fortunately successful) surgery. Before that I spent 3 months with an open wound in my side and a rubber hose coming out of that hole that I was constantly afraid of catching on a doorknob, necessitating another emergency-room visit. I couldn't shower, bend forward, lift anything, twist in any direction, or sleep more than a few hours at a time. I couldn't fully dress myself. Because of the infection risk I didn't leave the house except to go to the hospital. What I could do, fortunately, was talk on the phone or Zoom and write. And nobody noticed!

 I did, though. I was supposed to avoid stress so I spent the summer looking for softball stories that wouldn't upset anybody, especially me. (This worked until wine country caught fire, again.) I also did some work while on opioids -- if you find a typo, I blame the drugs -- and almost all of my work on short sleep.

Add it all together and this should have been my worst year professionally. But it wasn't, thanks to great support from Wine Searcher, where I am US editor. (Also a shout out to Wine Business Monthly, where I am a contributor: if you are a winemaker and want to know more about barrels click here.)

I look at the stories I did in my worst periods this year, and I know what I went through to do them. Again, I'm not special: everyone had challenges in 2020. One good point about journalism is that you can work despite physical challenges. I am fortunate that my own was temporary.

I'm not going to link to those stories, though. Instead, I'd like to share what I think are the best stories I did this year for Wine Searcher. A lot of my readers know me only through this blog, so these may be new for you. Many of them came before the morning my doctor called me and said, "Go to the emergency room right now," and some came after I was finally off the no-vegetables, no-fruit diet (the only perk of intestinal surgery is the 5-year-old boy's dream diet afterward. Burgers: fine. Chocolate mocha cake: great. Spinach and broccoli: NOT OK.).

My Best Wine Searcher Stories of 2020

The Editor and the Wine Competition: As long as I'm admitting I wasn't up to snuff at journalism for a  chunk of the year, I might as well admit I also failed at managing a wine competition panel. This is nostalgic for me because the meal I describe in Paris was the last meal I had in a restaurant, and ordering the Grand Marnier soufflé did turn out to be the best decision I made in 2020.

Napa's Nights of Fire on the Mountain: I really can't take credit for this. Stu Smith's first-person account of fighting fires surrounding his winery is harrowing but like my own tale, has a happy ending.

Get Well Soon, Napa Valley: This was the first story I did post-surgery, which means it was the first story I did post-hose. (I call 2020 My Summer of Hose.) It's hard for me to have perspective on it because just getting in the car and going to Napa Valley after being confined to a bed or reclining chair for months was such a powerful emotional experience. But other people seemed to like it.

Crop Insurance Fears for Smoke-hit Vineyards: I was pretty sick when I wrote this and the writing isn't good. But this may be the most important story I wrote in 2020. There was a loophole that might have prevented grapegrowers from getting payment from their crop insurance. I pursued it, wrote about it, and then the federal Risk Management Agency closed that loophole. I got into journalism to do good but usually I bloviate about Grenache instead. This was satisfying.

Time for the U.S. to Follow the E.U.: U.S. wineries are hurting themselves with millennials by refusing to list ingredients. I've ranted about this before, but this time I found a good way to frame it.

The Wine Intelligentsia: Almost Always Wrong: This was the last rant I wrote in 2020 (don't worry, I plan to rant again in 2021). Readers often complain about clickbait but the fact is rants always get more clicks than news articles, and not just from me: the New York Times says its opinion columns are more popular than its news sections.

"Nobody Knows Anything About What Sells Wine"
: Another one I can't really take credit for. If you want a good story, just interview somebody who is a better writer than yourself. Randall Grahm is not only that, he's also refreshingly candid, even in what was a personally depressing time for him.

Gallo's Golden Quest to Conquer Cognac
: This just ran a few days ago. I think I'm the first person to report on Gallo's quest. After years of treating me with suspicion, Gallo opened up to me this year, and not just for this story: check out Four Gallo Employees Talk About Racism and Progress in the Wine Industry. I still hope to get a one-on-one interview with Gina Gallo some day. It's good to have goals.

Silver Oak Toppled at Premiere Napa Auction: In February I thought I was a badass journalist because I flew back home from Italy and drove right up to St. Helena to do this story. The hardship! What it doesn't say is that Napa Valley Vintners intentionally made it more difficult this year to report on this auction, taking down the board they used to have that posted all of the prices. You won't see these numbers in any other story on the event; NVV won't confirm or deny anything but the total take. I'm the only journalist who calculates the average bottle price. Yes, I'm proud of it. Premiere Napa is wine news and should be covered as such.

Finding Love Among the Grapevines: I'm a sucker for a love story. Who isn't?

California's Other Cabernet Strikes a Claim
: Same here. This started as a feature on Napa Valley Cabernet Franc specialist Lang & Reed but it turns out that there's a love story behind both varietals they make.

Napa's Own Game of Thrones Story: I'll be honest, I wrote this whole story for you, the reader, except the last line, which I wrote for the story's subject. And I feel great about that.

Landfill Woes Napa's Latest Concern: Leaving romance for the dump, this is a story where I piggybacked off of the Napa Register's reporting, but it's significant for me because it was the first post-surgery story where I started feeling a little feisty. And it is a helluva story. Radioactive waste in Napa Valley? Yikes.

Head for the Mountains: Busch Now Making Wine: "It turns out the Busches are the perfect combination: A guy who loves farming and a strong-willed woman who wants balanced wine, profits be damned." Plus I got to feed carrots to Clydesdales.

Sangiovese's Daddy Makes a Comeback: I love doing stories of indigenous grapes making a comeback, and this one inspired me to look up the fathers of famous Italians. Did you know what Christopher Columbus' father did? Now you will.

Paris Judgment Vineyard Steps into the Light
: I wrote this just before surgery and if this had been the last story I ever had published, I would be OK with it. This one includes the metastory of reporting it (I'm still grateful to Violet and Mike Grgich for getting back to me so quickly, as my surgery was looming) plus an anecdote about Leslie Rudd that I had been saving for years. It felt pretty final to finally use it. Also, the Bacigalupi Chardonnay that the story is about is the last wine I had before having to go off alcohol pre-surgery, and if it had been the last wine I ever had in my life, I would have been OK with that too.

Luckily, though, I had a great outcome, and I look forward to bringing you more stories in 2021. I also look forward to drinking every great wine I can get my hands on.

Two things a health scare will do for you: make you appreciate what you have. And make you realize that your time is finite.

We're in a pandemic. Wear a mask, wash your hands, keep your distance. And drink your best wines now, because, to quote the musical Rent, there is No Day But Today.

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

Friday, October 16, 2020

Endorsements for the Nov. 2020 election in San Francisco

Greetings. Hopefully most of you have already voted, but if not, I'm here for you.

Election endorsements are a tradition at The Gray Report because I think we don't talk (not scream) enough about political choices, and that's how we get dangerous extremists in office.

This year's ballot is a seminar in wealth economics. Government is not a business: it must provide services for free that cost the city or state money. Thus it must raise money through taxes. Taxes are a zero-sum game: when Donald Trump pays only $750 a year, other people have to pay more. Many of the propositions on this ballot involve privileged groups trying to avoid paying taxes. These groups include owners of buildings worth more than $10 million; CEOs who earn more than 100 times their company's entry-level salary; and the greedy homeowners who voted for Proposition 13 in 1978, locking in their property taxes at a low level until they sold, eventually plummeting the state's school system because of the budget cuts. They have decided underpaying their taxes in perpetuity on their home isn't enough. The chutzpah. Middle-class and working-class people do not have a ballot proposition this year to lower our taxes; for each one of these taxes that the privileged avoid, we will pay more. Go ahead: take a look.

Understanding the local races is more difficult this year because the San Francisco Chronicle  decided to make its endorsement editorials available to subscribers only, which makes zero sense to me. Do you want the people you endorse elected or not? Fortunately, even without a print publication, the San Francisco Bay Guardian continues to do the hard work of interviewing candidates and sharing its opinions with everyone. Thank you. I also looked at the endorsements of the LA Times, candidate statements on Smart Voter, and the candidates' websites.

Dear undecided voters: If you don't know who to vote for in the school board race, you're not alone. There's never enough information in these races; we'll work through it together. But if you haven't decided who to vote for for US President, please stay home.

US President: Joe Biden

Germans had one chance to vote Hitler out of office, and they didn't do it. This is our one chance.

US State Representative, District 12: Nancy Pelosi

I wish Pelosi had relinquished her leadership role before reaching 80 years old. She says this will be her final term in office, though, and I don't see any reason not to let her serve it out. This will be a highly contested seat in 2022, but this year her opponent isn't really qualified.

State Senator, District 11: Scott Wiener

The left likes to make fun of Wiener, but I like him, dating back to his campaign while on the Board of Supervisors to ticket double-parked cars. He's hard-working, sponsors a lot of legislation, and he's liberal by US standards if moderate by San Francisco standards. He's a pragmatist: one of his pushes in the legislature was for bars in SF to stay open until 4 a.m. We're supposed to be a world-class city, so why should we have small-town blue laws?

State Assembly Member, District 17: David Chiu

I don't actually like Chiu, who is too conservative for San Francisco, but he has no credible opposition. His opponent is Starchild, who describes himself thus: "I'm a companion (erotic service provider), pansexual, veg'n, freedom activist and aspiring novelist based in San Francisco, with a BA in journalism from San Francisco State University and a work background including stints in retail and movie theaters as well as being a warehouse worker, legal assistant, and enlisted member of the U.S. Army Reserves." I'm sure Starchild's services are needed in Sacramento, but I'm not sure they're needed while the legislature is in session.

Member, Board of Education: Matt Alexander, Mark Sanchez, Kevine Boggess, Michelle Parker

The school board race is one where it would be nice to know why the Chronicle made its recommendations. Instead I'm left with the Guardian's choices and the candidates' own websites, because most of them didn't bother to provide information to Smart Voter.

Alexander has a nice record as the head of a charter school for underprivileged students. Sanchez, an incumbent, is also a former teacher and principal. Boggess, an education policy director at a nonprofit, has a lot of endorsements. Parker, a former PTA board president, has all the mainstream Democratic politicians behind her. 

Member, Community College Board: Victor Olivieri, Marie Hurabiell, Shanell Williams, Tom Temprano

I always hate this election more than any other. And I'm not alone: half the eligible incumbents decided not to run for re-election. City College of San Francisco has been mismanaged for years, nearly going bankrupt and nearly losing its accreditation. Its board elections tend to draw ideologues and not people interested in governing. CCSF tries to do too many things to appease too many constituencies and historically has not taken budgeting seriously.

Olivieri and Hurabiell are the board members CCSF needs: Grownups whose first priority is balancing the budget for an organization that has run big deficits for years. This should be every candidate's priority. Please vote for Olivieri and Hurabiell, because it's our money and they keep squandering it.

You gotta pick four candidates. Williams and Temprano are incumbents, which isn't really a good thing on this board, but both the Guardian and the Chronicle endorse them and you gotta vote for somebody. 

Bart director, district 9: Bevan Dufty

These are difficult times for BART, with ridership way down. Dufty is one of those local Democrats who jumps from job to job after being term-limited off the Board of Supervisors. But he at least has a lot of local political experience and he has no credible opposition.

State propositions

Proposition 14, Stem cell re-funding: NO

In 2004, when the Bush administration made stem-cell research controversial for religious reasons, California voters stepped up and gave $3 billion to create a board that would dole out taxpayer money for stem-cell research. (I voted for it.) Sixteen years later -- a long time even by medical research standards -- that money hasn't led to a single FDA-approved product, and there have been questions about how the unelected board allocates the money, with some members able to profit from it. This proposition would throw another $6.5 billion in taxpayer money to the board with insufficient oversight. The state stepped up once to do the federal government's job, but we can't keep throwing that money down a hole.

Proposition 15, Commercial property reassessment: YES

In 1978, California homeowners passed Proposition 13 to lower their property taxes. An unintended consequence is that it also froze taxes on commercial property. Home taxes eventually go up because people sell their homes, but commercial real estate companies use a variety of methods to get around that. The Guardian reports that Donald Trump owns half of the Bank of America building, and he pays a tiny amount of taxes on it because its tax rate was frozen in 1978. Taxation is a zero-sum game: if Trump pays fewer taxes, you pay more. Vote yes to raise Trump's taxes (not that he'll pay them anyway, but let's give it a shot.)

Proposition 16, Repeal of affirmative action ban: NO

I'm going to lose some followers over this, but that's fine: that's why I do these posts, so we can discuss issues.

In 1996, California voters banned the use of race as a factor in university admissions, public contracting and public employment. We definitely needed affirmative action after decades of discrimination, but at some point it should end. The way to fight discrimination is with equal opportunity, not more discrimination. Affirmative action sees the world in black and white. Asian Americans are screwed by quota systems. And who decides who is white today, and thereby the least-favored people for university admissions? What about first-generation immigrants? Are Arabs white? Race is just not that simple.

University admissions should give advantages to students based on their economic circumstances. Look at the four key members of the Golden State Warriors' dynasty: Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. All four identify as black, though two have white mothers. Two of them were raised in economically depressed areas by single mothers. Two of them were the sons of NBA stars and were raised with every privilege. Should all four have been treated the same by university admissions departments because of their race, or should the economically underprivileged pair have been given the edge?

One more point I want to make on this issue: What we have learned since 2016 is that the most dangerous people in the United States are uneducated white people. Do we really want to set up a system to produce more of them?

Proposition 17, Voting rights for parolees: YES

In California, felons are not allowed to vote until they finish their parole. I don't see the reason for this. If they are on parole, they have been allowed to live and work as contributing members of society. Voting is part of that.

Proposition 18, Primary voting for 17-year-olds: YES

I don't like expanding voting rights beyond adults who are U.S. citizens, as called for in the Constitution. But primary elections are a little different, especially in this state, where the Democratic primary often decides the office. This bill would allow people who will be 18 at the time of the general election to participate in the primary election beforehand. It's a tiny expansion of voting rights to people who would have them anyway in just a few short months.

Proposition 19, Skirting property taxes: NO

This is an extension of the infamous Proposition 13. Homeowners who paid super-low taxes for decades would be able to buy and sell up to three different homes without ever having a fair tax assessment. Essentially, their ability to skirt taxes that the rest of us have to pay would be grandfathered in for life. Taxation is a zero-sum game. They've paid far less than their fair share, and they did nothing to earn it except to vote for their wallets at the expense of state schools. Don't keep rewarding them.

Proposition 20, Felonies for shoplifting: NO

This isn't an easy call for me. I dislike criminal justice issues being decided by ballot referendums, because voters generally are too bloodthirsty for punishment and not focused on rehabilitation. This proposal fits into that frame: it would allow prosecutors to charge felony theft for items over $250, rather than the current $950 limit, and would add more types of crimes (including hate crimes and aggravated assault) to the list of those that are not eligible for parole. Normally it would be a hard no for me. But most grocery-store chains in the state are supporting it. In 2014 and again in 2016, California voters passed laws liberalizing incarceration policies; the stores say shoplifting has spiked because there are no consequences. Moreover, organized looting has become a thorn in the image of the protest movement; protesters march with legitimate beefs during the day, but as soon as darkness falls, vanloads of professional thieves who have nothing to do with social justice show up to break store windows and steal whatever they can carry. There's not much motivation for overworked police to make arrests because if an individual member of the gang is only carrying $900 worth of stuff, it's a misdemeanor. I would support redefining felony theft at $250 if the bill did only that.

Why I can't support the bill as is: California's prisons remain overcrowded, and this bill's provisions limiting parole are a mistake. We have to make some difficult choices about who to let out, and some of those choices will be wrong. To me, this bill doesn't help the situation by taking the decision about individuals out of the hands of prosecutors and the parole board.

Proposition 21, Rent control: YES

This should be a no-brainer. In 1995, California passed the Costa-Hawkins act, which forbid local cities from imposing rent control on vacant apartments. You want to know why working-class people can't afford to live in San Francisco, not to mention Napa and a number of other cities? This is why. The bill would simply restore to local municipalities the ability to pass tenant-friendly policies like rent freezes. We're going to have a national homelessness crisis next year because of the pandemic if Congress doesn't get its act together on rent and evictions. We already have a homelessness crisis in California. Passing this proposition is a step to addressing it. 

Proposition 22, Uber/Lyft rewriting the law in their favor: NO

Should we let companies write the laws governing them? If your answer to that is "no," vote NO on this proposition.

Last year the state passed a law giving workers' rights like sick leave and health insurance to people who work fulltime without being called fulltime employees. Two of the main offenders in exploiting their workers are Uber and Lyft. They have spent more than $130 million on ads pushing this proposition, which rewrites the law the way they want it: with no rights for drivers, no matter how many hours they work.

The original law had some flaws, notably as applied to freelance writers, but the legislature has moved to fix those. If there are other flaws regarding Uber's and Lyft's business, the legislature can handle them. Putting this proposition on the ballot is nothing less than an attempt by Uber and Lyft to use their investors' money to write their own laws. Don't be a party to it.

Proposition 23, Dialysis clinics: NO

Here's another greedy self-interested law, in this case pushed by a health care workers union. The law would require a doctor to be on site at dialysis clinics. But that isn't needed, and it will both drive up the cost of dialysis and possibly put it out of reach for some people who need it.

The Guardian raises another concern: this is the kind of law used in many states to restrict abortion, by requiring, for example, that doctors performing abortions have admitting privileges at a local hospital. To be clear, abortion is not on the ballot here. But the Guardian is right in saying that the nitty gritty of medical procedures is not something we should get in the habit of legislating by ballot initiative.

Proposition 24, Deceptive privacy law: NO

This law sounds like a great idea, but it's a Trojan horse, giving tech companies more ability to collect your personal information, and allowing them to block you from using apps if you don't opt in to such practices. Like the previous two ballot measures, this is a self-interested measure passed by an industry that wants to fool voters into increasing its profit margins. Don't fall for it. 

Proposition 25, Bail reform: YES

California is already moving away from cash bail for people charged with crimes to a system that bases their release on whether or not they are a flight risk or a danger to the community. Requiring cash bail hits low-income people hardest, often causing the most vulnerable people to lose their job or enter a cycle of debt when they can least afford it. One of my strongest beliefs about criminal justice is that the US focuses too much on punishment and not enough on the reality that most people will get out of prison eventually, and we'll all be better off if we ease their transition to society. Eliminating cash bail is a step in the right direction. If someone is convicted, lock them up, but until then, let them keep working and providing for their family, because otherwise you're encouraging them to get money however they can, and that's not good for anyone.

City and county ballot propositions

Proposition A, Homelessness and parks bond: NO

It's tempting vote for this measure for a $487 million bond -- half of which can be passed on to tenants -- because it sounds good. But during a pandemic, with city revenues down, do we need to spend another $239 million on parks? Homelessness is a huge problem, but it's a state problem: does San Francisco have to spend $207 million on facilities for substance abuse and mental health? In 2018 California voters approved $2 billion in bonds for supportive housing for people with mental illness. Where is San Francisco's share of that $2 billion? Measures like this can act as a homeless magnet, which is why we need statewide action, not this huge local expenditure.

I supported the 2018 city bond for $425 million to repair the seawall. That had to be done. This bill is a mishmash of parks projects that aren't absolutely necessary and homeless services that should be paid for by the state. Vote no and let the board of supervisors come back to us in the next election with a cleaner bond bill that separates two unconnected issues.

Proposition B, Extra bureaucracy: NO

This proposal would increase the ratio of managers to workers at city hall by splitting the Department of Public Works in two, and would increase the difficulty of getting anything done by creating a political commission with appointees coming from the mayor's office and the Board of Supervisors. The Guardian implies it was created because the former head of Public Works was arrested and charged with fraud. The problem there was that former mayor Ed Lee removed oversight of the department. Obviously it needs oversight, but this is overkill. Just ask Mayor London Breed to appoint someone in her office to oversee Public Works' contracts. Simple. I would vote yes for just an oversight board, but splitting DPW in two is an unnecessary overreaction.

Citizenship ceremoney
Citizenship ceremony

Proposition C, Allows non-citizens on public boards: NO

The U.S. is one of the more open countries in the world about allowing citizenship. I say this as someone who lived in Japan, where earning citizenship is extremely difficult. Citizenship brings rights and privileges and that includes the privilege to take part in governmental policy boards. Some people say that non-citizens are affected by policy decisions and so should be able to take part in the decision-making. Sure -- all they have to do is become citizens. I don't want people who haven't made that level of commitment to living in the United States to make decisions about the future of our city.

Proposition D, Sheriff's department oversight board: YES

I'm not entirely sure this is necessary. In San Francisco, the sheriff's department is really only responsible for the jail, and we don't read all that much bad news about the jail. But if we've learned one thing in 2020, it's that all sworn officers licensed to carry firearms should have oversight. 

Proposition E, Police staffing: YES

Probably thanks to the police union, since 1994 the city charter has required the city to have 1,971 sworn police officers. I don't know whether that's too many (possibly, if you're going to have police reform and farm out tasks to other agencies) or too few, but I do know that it's a silly random number codified into law. Let's fix that.

Proposition F, Business tax reform: YES

We can't get back the hundreds of millions of dollars that tech companies should have been paying but haven't because of city tax breaks. But we can try to fix the broken system that allows them to pay less than their fair share. You want to address homelessness? Start by taxing the tech companies, not apartment renters. This law would actually increase the number of small businesses exempt from taxation while increasing gross receipts taxes on the tech giants. If the tech giants want to leave town, I hear San Antonio's nice. When are your staff vacating their apartments?

Proposition G, 16 year olds voting: NO

I'm sorry but most people at age 16 are simply not old enough to consider the issues for voting. Plus, I don't see any advantage to this bill, and the disadvantages could become quickly apparent in school board elections, which are already difficult enough without candidates having to pander to students.

Proposition H, Planning changes without oversight: NO

There was no public hearing on these proposed 90 pages of changes to the planning code that would deregulate land use in commercial districts. Are they good ideas or not? This is a topic for a multi-hour hearing to tease out all the possible ramifications. Instead, we get 30 words on a ballot. That's not enough information to go on. Vote NO and make supporters explain what they want and why they want it.

Proposition I, Higher tax on $10 million real estate sales: YES

Taxation is a zero-sum game. This bill would increase taxes on properties that sell for more than $10 million. Ask yourself, who better to get more money from than somebody who just sold a building for $20 million? If this doesn't pass, we'll get that tax money from the working class instead. 

Proposition J, Parcel tax for schools: YES

A similar $288 parcel tax passed in 2018 but legal questions over the need for a simple majority or supermajority threw it into doubt. This is the same bill, essentially, and the schools need the money.

Proposition K, Permitting affordable housing: YES

This bill allows the city to build up to 10,000 affordable housing units. It's just the first step, as it doesn't provide any funding. But it's necessary thanks to an antiquated element of the state Constitution that requires voter approval before building any low-income housing.

Proposition L, Overpaid CEO tax: YES

This measure would increase city business taxes on any company where the CEO makes more than 100 times what the lowest-paid fulltime worker makes. Not only will it bring in more revenue; it might make more people think about how overpaid CEOs are. If you or I have a bad week at work, we'll get fired, but a CEO can drive a company to the brink of bankruptcy with bad decisions and walk away with a $100 million golden parachute. What -- you say that companies whose CEOs make more than $500 million a year won't want to locate in San Francisco? Like I said, I heard San Antonio's nice. Can we have your spot in the bakery line?

Proposition RR, Caltrain sales tax: NO

Caltrain mostly benefits people living on the Peninsula, where average incomes are much higher than in the city. Now that Caltrain is low on funds, it wants a regional sales tax administered by San Mateo County. But because more shops are in San Francisco, we'll pay the brunt of it. No thanks. You have the money down there; you pay for it.

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

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

National Black Farmers Association asks for a court injunction ending Roundup sales

 Two weeks after spraying with Roundup. Courtesy UC
Roundup may be the most widely used and thus financially successful herbicide in history. But brand owner Bayer is already facing a reckoning after agreeing to pay $10.9 billion to settle claims that the weedkiller causes cancer.

The National Black Farmers Association wants more than just money: it wants Roundup rounded up and taken out of the pasture, for good.

I'm a little surprised the NBFA's lawsuit, filed last week in Missouri federal district court against Bayer subsidiary Monsanto, hasn't attracted more attention. If successful, it could have an enormous impact on farming nationwide, with worldwide repercussions. And given the successes that lawsuits alleging that Roundup causes cancer have had in court, it would be short-sighted to say the NBFA doesn't have a chance of winning.

Bayer's corporate statement characterized the NBFA as a lawsuit by two legal firms that refused to join the $10.9 billion settlement. According to one of NBFA's attorneys, more than 25,000 cancer victims have not settled with Bayer.

Bayer bought Monsanto for $63 billion in 2018, thus acquiring Roundup and its financial successes and legal liabilities. You have to wonder at what point Bayer will decide the latter outweigh the former, especially as countries all over the world are taking various steps to ban Roundup.

What the NBFA is arguing is that black farmers were uniquely vulnerable to Monsanto.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Guest post: Don't write off the 2020 vintage, says Sonoma vintner Jake Bilbro

Jake Bilbro, author of this guest post and owner of Limerick Lane
I got a call last week from Limerick Lane winery owner Jake Bilbro, who is concerned that media coverage (including mine) about smoke is going to unfairly taint the reputation of the 2020 vintage. I offered Jake an opportunity to write a guest post. These are his words, lightly edited.

"2020 has been an unparalleled year in regards to challenges. We can relegate that to wine, the greater business world outside of wine, civil rights issues, Covid-19 pandemic, California wildfires, or just life in general.

In this environment there is, in my opinion, a stress level that doesn't seem to go away. Fuses slowly and subtly shorten and our communal irrational behavior intensifies. Some could argue that it evolves to the situation but I would say it augments because the evolution in question isn't a move in a positive direction. 

We jump to conclusions, our responses are heightened, things seem scarier. It is a natural reaction to accumulated prolonged stress.

Over the last couple of weeks, the unbelievable has happened... another fire and more crazy weather has hit our state. I have no interest in discussing the causes of this fire at the moment. My concern is how we react to it as a community. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Quiz: Guess which very popular wine has more residual sugar?

What's in the wines America is really drinking? I can't tell you about additives -- those aren't listed on the label, as the wine industry as a whole prefers secrecy, even as young consumers keep saying they want to know what's going in their bodies.

What I can tell you, thanks to the labs at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, is how much residual sugar is in some of the most popular wines in the United States.

To be clear, "residual sugar" isn't "added sugar." What it means is that the winery -- all of these are large commercial wine factories -- picks the grapes riper than they need to be, and then stops the fermentation before all of the sugar in these overripe grapes becomes alcohol. They leave in that sugar to please the sweet tooth of consumers, who often think they are buying "dry wine" because, unlike the EU, where wines must have under 9 g/l of RS to be considered "dry,"* the US has no standard for what "dry wine" actually is. Some of our "dry wines" are loaded with sugar, and not by accident, as sweetness sells.

* Europe has an exception for wines over 7 g/l Total Acidity, which isn't something you see often in US wines, and never in supermarket wines like these.

The winery then must add higher amounts of sulfites or other preservatives to the wine than would be needed if it were dry, in order to prevent the sugar in the wine from re-fermenting in the bottle. So wherever you find a high amount of RS, you will also find other things you might not want to drink.

I looked up the top 15 selling wine brands in the US in 2018, according to Wine Handbook 2019, and the top wines from the Wine & Spirits Restaurant poll, on the website of the LCBO, which tests all the wines sold in that Canadian province for a number of things, including residual sugar. Ontario doesn't carry all of these wines, notably excluding Franzia and Sutter Home, the No. 1 and No. 4 selling wines in the U.S. by volume.

I could just post the results, but let's have a little more fun. See if you can guess which wine has the most residual sugar (RS). Note that I didn't even use the big sugar bombs. If you want to avoid lots of RS, stay away from cheap Moscatos and cheap rosés.

Which brings me to wine Twitter's current fixation, "clean wine." People on Twitter keep whining about how their handpicked estate vineyard biodynamic native-yeast Counoise is a way more natural product than "clean wine." Stipulated. But what do you think people who might be interested in "clean wine" have been drinking to this point? Take the quiz -- the answer to that question is all over it like marshmallows on sweet potatoes.

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Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Introducing the "Mood: What Will We Drink on Nov. 3?" series

We'll all need a drink on Nov. 3, Election Night. It's the night the United States chooses between democracy and fascism. And to paraphrase Michael Jordan, fascists drink wine too.

The only question is what will we drink. Will it be the most delicious wine in the cellar -- or perhaps hemlock?

I'm going to run a regular series of Mood graphics to try to capture the shifting election dynamics. Because why not: this is the most terrifying summer of my lifetime, so we might as well try to capture the mood and amuse ourselves as we teeter on the brink.

Most of these I will just post on Twitter so you might want to follow me there if you aren't already.

If I get re-interested in Instagram (I do not trust its owner Facebook, so I took it off my phone), I might post some there as well.

Let's start off today with a few possible Nov. 3 beverage selections, based on polls of states that are at least somewhat purple:




Forget the usual stuff I put here to boost my social-media presence.
Do this: REGISTER TO VOTE! Do it now because the GOP will try to stop you.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Does what's on the label matter? One obstinate consumer (me) goes to great lengths to find out

Me as a sake judge, with a pre-pandemic haircut
What's in a classification? Does it matter what a wine or spirit actually is, rather than what it's called?

Does what's on the label matter?

I think it does matter, which is how I fell into a two-month-long rabbit hole regarding a sake for which I paid less than $20 and immediately demanded a refund (which I got) -- without even opening it.

This is the tale of Ban Ryu sake, made by 242-year-old Eiko Fuji Brewery in Yamagata, Japan and imported to the US by Joto Sake. But really it's the tale of me: not as a writer and journalist, but as a demanding and obstinate consumer.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

In defense of "clean wine": Wake up, wine industry

Cameron Diaz is pissing off wine snobs
The wine Internet is furious about actress Cameron Diaz's foray into the wine business. Diaz is calling her new Avaline brand "clean wine" even though, as Alder Yarrow points out, it's bulk wine from Spain that's full of unnecessary (but not harmful) chemicals.

I could jump on the bandwagon of wine snobs bashing Diaz in public. I'm not going to spend my own money on a bottle of Spanish bulk wine that touts its imaginary virtue while hiding its origins.

But I won't, because the wine industry is missing the point.

The point is not that Avaline wine is a scam. It might be.

The point is that there is a market for a wine like Avaline, and the wine industry on the whole is not filling it, so Cameron Diaz can step right in. And in that, I say, bully for her.

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.

This video is not on my Youtube channel, but subscribe to my channel anyway, it's free! You can also follow me on Twitter @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.

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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