Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Cannabis industry update from the Cannabis Business Summit

Cannabis is already a huge business -- $23.6 billion in sales in the US in 2021. And there's room to grow fast because the industry is still not reaching as many female consumers.

This was one of the findings presented at the Cannabis Business Summit in San Francisco last week by Cy Scott, co-founder of Headset. Headset works a bit like Nielsen; it takes data from receipts from cannabis stores in the US and Canada.

Legal cannabis sales grew 28% in the US from 2020 to 2021, and 54% in Canada (to $4 billion). In Canada, the growth was largely in Ontario, because that province began opening additional stores in an attempt to tempt consumers away from the illicit market. In the US, growth continues to come from new states opening up.

Arizona legalized cannabis in 2020 and sales are rising rapidly. Sales are also way up in California, Illinois, Massachusetts and Michigan. But sales are nearly flat in Colorado, Oregon and Washington, possibly showing that the markets there have reached saturation.

Millennials are by far the biggest consumers of cannabis, making up nearly 50% of customers. Gen Z has just passed baby boomers, and more Gen Z people are reaching legal consumption age every day.

In the US, only about 33% of sales are to female consumers. Females are much more likely to buy topicals and tinctures than male consumers. The major edible brands appeal to both genders, but females buy about 43%; the over-indexing shows that they are more interested in edibles than males.

Here is something similar between the US alcohol market and the US cannabis market: distributors and high-end business types act bored with the main product, and can't wait for you to move on to some heavily adulterated intoxicant delivery system.

In cannabis this means the suits want to move people away from flower -- the basic form of cannabis, and the most popular form in every market. There's more profit to be made selling extracted chemicals than naturally grown plants. But it turns out that customers may be smarter than this. Newer markets sell more vape pens, but mature US markets sell more flower, Scott said.

Flower is about 45% of the US market overall. Vape pens make up about 20% of the US market, with pre-rolls, edibles and concentrates responsible for about 10% each. (For my wine industry readers, cannabis beverages are still a blip.)

Canadians are trying out alternatives lately: 80% of the market was flower in March 2019, and now it's about 45%.

Scott said that flower skews to an older, male clientele, but the differences aren't that great: 52% of male baby boomers prefer flower, the highest of any US demographic group, but the lowest is female Gen-Z at 39%. Give them time, they'll learn!

Here's a classic example of generational marketing. There's a "chef-based" edibles brand called Mindy's that makes items like "glazed clementine orange" cannabis-infused gummies. And there's a brand called Stiizy that makes edibles in flavors including "sour apple, Caribbean breeze, blue raspberry blast and sour strawberry." If you think Mindy's sounds good, you're probably using reading glasses: it skews to baby boomers. If you think Stiizy sounds good, you're not reading this because it's in text and not video; it skews to Gen Z.

Here's the evidence that cannabis consumers are not (yet) brand loyal: In California, 32.3% of products account for 80% of sales.

"What this tells me is the winners haven't been selected yet," Scott said.

Compare that to the wine industry. Gallo alone makes about 30% of all US wines, and just 7 companies make about 77% of all US wines.

All of that I gleaned from just one seminar! Here are some odds and ends from other seminars I attended:

* One of the cannabis industry's main Washington lobbyists expressed a lot of frustration with the dysfunctional Democrats. Consider this: a majority of Democrats in Congress support full legalization and they are joined by a surprising number of Republicans. And there are huge majorities for lesser steps, especially allowing safe banking and removing cannabis from Schedule 1, which specifically states that there is no currently accepted medical use. Obviously that's wrong.

Yet nothing has been done. The reason will remind you of the endless Democrat internal fighting over other bills this year: the perfect has been the enemy of the good. If the Democrats would just put forward a simple bill removing cannabis from Schedule 1 and allowing cannabis businesses full access to banking services for safety, it would pass easily. They have had all year; the legislation would be popular. But they haven't done it and aren't making it a priority. And in fact, a cannabis banking provision was pulled from a different bill because it wasn't "perfect."

Meanwhile, big tobacco and alcohol companies are angling through their lobbyists to write cannabis rules to benefit big businesses. I wouldn't bet against them.

* California is hoping to dominate cannabis production as it does wine. Nicole Elliott, director of the California Department of Cannabis Control, said a main goal in federal regulation is to allow interstate commerce "because of our production capacity."

* Social equity is a much, much bigger deal in the fledgling cannabis industry than in older industries, and this makes sense because the war on drugs was largely conducted in minority communities. Social equity will be a major part of many regulations going forward.

* The federal legalization of hemp has led to a weird situation where companies are taking extracts from hemp and manipulating them in laboratories to come up with the psychoactive components found naturally in regular cannabis.

Oregon's head of cannabis regulation said southern Oregon is suddenly awash in hemp growhouses that popped up overnight, driven by the demand for CBD and other derivatives, and that some of them have been caught growing regular cannabis alongside the hemp. But there is little incentive, either federal or local, to crack down on illegal grow operations with cannabis in so many legal gray areas.

* A panel of athletes revealed that they like to smoke a joint after a game to wind down, when they're full of adrenaline, and also for pain relief. The NFL is the one major US sports league that still punishes players for using cannabis -- and it's the one league where practically all of the players are in pain every single day.

* A tour of the booths offering stuff for sale to other cannabis businesses showed that powdery mildew, a wine industry scourge, is also a huge problem in the cannabis industry, with several companies offering solutions.

* However, I did not see one business offering odor control for cannabis growers. It has been an issue in some locales but there doesn't seem to be any technology to address it (market opening?)

* One PR company promised "#1 SEO placement in your local market." Seriously? If you buy that, ask for a money-back guarantee.

* Cannabis products on offer to the public are changing fast, not surprising for a young industry. I saw several objects I didn't recognize that turned out to be new models for vape pens. I also learned that I had no idea what a "diamond-infused preroll" is. The woman marketing them looked at me like I had been under a rock for two years. Which I guess is true.

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

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Haiku tasting notes for autumn 2021

Shorter than twitter
haiku tasting notes capture
the feeling of wine

I have been keeping haiku tasting notes for a few months since claiming I could do it. In most cases I took traditional tasting notes and then wrote the haiku. Some of these wines and sakes I have written about elsewhere; for others this will be my only memory, save the ephemeral grace of drinking and enjoying them.

These are all unedited, which any critic will tell you is rare for tasting notes. But a haiku is supposed to capture a moment in time, so it feels wrong to come in months later and change a word.

I used the classic haiku definition of 5-7-5 syllables. It is with deep regret that I did not always include a seasonal reference as all good haiku should. Please accept my contrition.

The links lead to places you can purchase the wines and sakes.

I also gave scores
But will keep those to myself
Haiku must suffice

Accendo Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 14.8% alcohol

Graceful blackberries
Delightful seamless texture
not overstated

Accendo Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 14.8%

Intense berry fruit
smooth tannins but abrupt finish
Not ready open

Ameal Vinho Verde Loureiro 2020 11.5%

Fresh and floral
Better with food than solo
Great typicity

Ca' Lojera "Riserva del Lupo" Lugana 2017 14%

Lemon with sea air
Crisp, salty and refreshing
I want some fried smelt

Cameron Hughes Lot 35 Yountville Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 13.8%

Mature aroma
Fresh and dried black and purple
assertive then grace

Capezzana "Trefiano" Carmignano Riserva 2015 14.5%

Smells like Cabernet
Fortunately it tastes like
ripe Sangiovese

 Capezzana Villa di Capezzanaarmignano 2016 14.5%

Smoked red plums and ham
Fresh on you right away then
spreads medium body

Carlo Zenegaglia "Montefluno" Lugana 2020 13%

Fresh spring citrus breeze
Awake lingering sandy
we had with wrapped fish

Caruso & Minini Sicilia Catarratto 2020 13%

Wanted dinner white
It did that job perfectly
And it's so much more

Caruso & Minini Terre Siciliane IGP Frappato Nerello Mascalese 2020 13.5%

Spiced berry bouquet
Tastes forest, wild, great texture
big cat leans on you

Casa da Tapada "Superior" Vinho Verde Alvarinho & Loureiro 2018 13%

Citrus up front
your lips smack, then smooth finish
Simple great with food

Château de la Crée "La Confrérie" Santenay 2018 13.5%

Smoked cherry open
Good freshness; cedar finish
It's agreeable

Donnafugata "Sul Vulcano" Etna Rosso 2017 14%

Nicely balanced wine
red plums are good but I want
More mineral notes

Esporão Bico Amarelo Vinho Verde 2020 11.5%

Lemon pith sea air
cream aroma opens quite fresh
taut lemon hint bloom

Faust "The Pact" Coombsville Cabernet Sauvignon 2019

Herbs and dusty slate
Just ripe purples nice texture
lush yet not too rich

Fleur de Mer Côtes de Provence Rosé 2019 13%

Elegant simple
pale orange color fruit driven
Intense cantaloupe

Gillmore Mariposa Maule Valley País 2019 13%

Hibiscus berry
Light red hue of Christmas ball
Light but not lightweight

Grace Family Vineyard "Grace Family Blend" St. Helena Cabernet Sauvignon 2019

Grace, the vineyard name
is descriptive too. Balanced
complex, elegant

Granbazàn "Etiqueta Verde" Rias Baixas Albariño 2020 13%

Lemon growing stone
Fresh light citrus, some structure
Terrific fish wine

Harbor Winery Amador County Mission del Sol 1984

Great use historic
variety it's tawny
fresh caramelized

Heiwa Shuzou "Kid" Junmai Ginjo Haru no Kinpu Nama

(I wrote this one in Japanese)

飲む 生きる

(It's not great Japanese but it does have a seasonal reference. Here is the translation)

Spring nama sake
gentle sunset fog I see
Drinking it's alive

Hudson Ranch "Trillium" Los Carneros Chardonnay 2019

Toasted coconut
lemon pith and salt water
Serious party

J. Bucher Bucher Vineyard Russian River Valley Rosé of Pinot Noir 2019 13.5%

Pretty pink light red
Fruity cherry, light citrus
Close to red border

Kosta Browne "Bootlegger's Hill" Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2017 13.5%

Sloppy drunken kiss
Lemon curd on fresh baked bread
Luscious and not shy

Kosta Browne Cerise Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2017 13.4%

Cerise describes the
Potent cherry aroma
Fresh and assertive

Kosta Browne Giusti Ranch Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2018 14.2%

In the past this brand
was enormous but now this wine
it is delicate

Kuro Kabuto Junmai Daiginjo (black koji) 720 ml

Peachy and milky
Exuberant at first Hey!
Withdraws, dries up. Yep.

Kutch Signal Ridge Vineyard Mendocino Ridge Pinot Noir 2016 12%

Deep forest berries
Fresh, buoyant, bit muscular
Nice low alcohol

Le Morette Lugana Riserva 2017 13.5%

Taut, fresh, citrusy
Hints of chalk and white flowers
Cries out for shellfish

Louis Roederer Collection 242 Champagne 12%

Chalk toast citrus nose
Opens fresh then broadens toast
Expansive finish

Marchesi di Gresy Barbera d'Asti 2018 14%

Juicy red plum
Fresh open then adds some weight
Nice tangy food wine

Montonale "Montunal" Lugana 2019 13.5%

Familiar flavors
citrus and sea salt take me
to lakeside seafood

Nicolas Jay "L'Ensemble" Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2018 13.5%

Assemblage in blue
Made for texture and balance
Non-complex blue fruit

Sangiro Pieknierskloof Pinotage 2017 13%

Abandoned vineyard
Nursed back to life reveals spring
with vibrant flavors

Tasca d'Almerita Tenuta Regaleali "Lamùri" Sicilia Nero d'Avola 2016 13.5%

Straightforward and fresh
Red berry fruit, not complex
Very drinkable

Tenuta Capofaro "Didyme" Salina IGT Malvasia 2019 13%

Perfumey lemon
with a hint of pungency
Fresh with nice saline

The Vice "Brooklynites" Napa Valley Orange of Semillon 2020 13.7%

Distant sunrise hue
grips your tongue like a light red
Fruit like a ripe white

The Vice Sauvignon Blanc Rosé 2019 12.8%

Pale yellow hint pink
citrus aroma feral
rude, vegetal white

Tierra Roja Vineyards "Years for Peace" Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 ($283)

Freshly picked black fruit
smooth, rich, lush with good balance
Classic style Oakville

Trump Reserve Monticello Brut 2014 12.5%

Expect competence
This winemaker delivers
The owner did not

Tsukasabotan "Senchu Hassaku Reika Nama" Junmai Nama sake 720 ml

Alive in your face
Intense fruity nectarine
then cereal beer

Ventisquero "Enclave" Pirque Maipo Andes Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 14%

syrupy open
dark fruit rich finishes fresh
Integrates slowly

Ventisquero "Grey" Single Block Las Terrazas Vineyard Valle de Leyda Pinot Noir 2017 12.5%

Light bodied red brown
Dried cherries cedar leather
Elegant texture

Zulal Vayots Dzor (Armenia) Areni 2018 13%

Spicy, peppery
Aromatic and its taste
Promises delivered

Zulal Vayots Dzor (Armenia) Voskehat 2019 13.5%

Jaunty fruity nose
Weighty dried stonefruit springs warm
Nice bitter finish

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Monday, August 16, 2021

Election endorsement: Should we recall California governor Gavin Newsom?

Photo courtesy Michael S. Williamson, Washington Post
Election endorsements are a tradition at The Gray Report, because I think we yell too much about national politics but don't discuss our local choices enough.

This could be the easiest election endorsement ever. Unlike a regular ballot with school board candidates I've never heard of and complex ballot propositions, there are only two questions on the ballot that all Californians received by mail, and the first is the key: should we recall Governor Gavin Newsom? And the answer to that question is the easiest ever.

Just because it's easy doesn't mean it's without consequence. We are in the middle of a pandemic, and we might suddenly hand the governor's job -- and power -- to a radio talk show host, a YouTube commentator, or a businessman with a pet bear. That might sound like a joke but those are the three leading candidates.

I am furious at the California Democratic Party for allowing this to happen. Not for the first time. There are many echoes in this recall election of 2003, when Gray Davis was recalled and voters installed Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor. Unfortunately there is no one anywhere near as good as Schwarzenegger waiting to take over this time. That is the California Democratic Party's (CDP) fault.

In 2002, Davis was extremely unpopular but the CDP discouraged any primary competition. Voters didn't want Davis but the CDP tried to avoid giving us a choice. The very next year there was a recall, and the CDP tried to keep every viable Democratic candidate from entering. Cruz Bustamante, the lieutenant governor, threw his hat in the ring despite being warned that he would be ostracized by the CDP. The CDP didn't put any effort into Bustamante's candidacy. Davis was recalled, Schwarzenegger became governor, and as threatened Bustamante's political career was over. Thanks to the CDP cramming Gray Davis down our throats and not supporting an alternative, we got 7 years of a GOP governor in a Democratic state.

That is looking increasingly likely to happen again. If only we had a Cruz Bustamante on this ballot. San Francisco mayor London Breed or Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti would look good on this ballot. Former LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, California House speaker Anthony Rendon and California Senate majority leader Robert Hertzberg also. Anybody in Newsom's cabinet would look good on this ballot, and for most it would be their only real chance to be governor. But the party managed to keep them from running.

The strategy is to coerce voters into voting NO on the recall because, the CDP calculates, we should rightfully be terrified by the sideshow clowns who will get the job if the recall succeeds. But polls are showing how risky that strategy is, as Newsom barely leads at this time.

It's not just a Republican-led recall: it's a Proud Boys, anti-vax, anti-masker, seditionist-led recall. The same people who cheered on Jan. 6 are the ones most excited about this recall. They are going to vote. They might have enough numbers to get it done if sensible members of the electorate don't vote. Think about the face of those Jan. 6 terrorists in the Capitol: that is the enthusiasm they are bringing to this recall.

Of course you should vote NO.

I'm not going to defend Newsom at length. If you hate Newsom, he's up for re-election in 2022 and if the CDP doesn't block other candidates from the primary like in 2002, we can vote him out then. The 2022 primary is less than a year away! Wait for it!

That said, the state has a budget surplus under Newsom. Under his pandemic leadership we went from having one of the worst outbreaks in the entire world in Los Angeles in mid-2020 to having one of the lowest rates of infection in the country today. I don't like wearing a mask again either, but do you want to live in Florida right now? I like Florida, I lived there for a decade, but no thank you during the Delta variant surge. Newsom has gotten a number of things wrong, but he has gotten the two biggest things right.

But honestly, that's not the reason to vote NO. The reason is that like every election, if you choose not to decide you still have made a choice. Somebody is going to be Governor of California in October. Ignoring this recall doesn't mean it won't happen; instead it makes it more likely.

I'm going to vote NO. Obviously. And I am ABSOLUTELY NOT going to leave the second question blank. I am NOT going to let Proud Boys and anti-vaxxers decide the next governor of California without doing a thing to stop it.

I have to hold my nose and vote for someone in case Newsom falls. There are 46 candidates on the ballot and one of them will be governor.

Survey USA recently released a poll showing the top three candidates as Kevin Paffrath (27%), a YouTube talking head who has the huge advantage of being one of only nine Democrats; Larry Elder (23%), a conservative talk show host; and John Cox (10%), a businessman who brought a bear on a chain to his campaign speeches for some reason, perhaps going for the underserved carnival demographic.

All of them suck; I mean, really, really suck. Including the "Democrat." I always complain about having to choose lousy school board candidates, but these are even worse choices, and the job is so much more important.

Here's a quick summary. The link on each of their names goes to their Wikipedia pages, which I encourage you to read:

Kevin Paffrath: He buys and sells homes but makes his money from selling advertising on his YouTube channel. He advocates for landlords to mislead tenants. He's 29 years old and popular with younger voters, largely because he's not a professional politician. His positions on his website are interesting, but they're not well thought out (he thinks he can reduce gas prices by raising the tax on gas) and more importantly they're not things he can accomplish without the legislature; an experienced politician would understand that. And if the CDP wouldn't support any of its members to run, don't expect the Democrats in the legislature to support Paffrath if he wins.

Everybody hates politicians. Do you remember the last non-politician we elected President? If you think Donald Trump was good at the job ... It took Schwarzenegger two years to figure out how to work in government, and there are less than two years left in the current governor's term. Jesse Ventura was a non-politician governor in Minnesota; the state went from a budget surplus to a deficit in his one term. Both Schwarzenegger and Ventura were a lot smarter, more experienced, and better prepared than Paffrath and you can't call either one a success. We're in a crisis; we don't need a leader who needs to have the limits of his power explained every day.

Larry Elder: Please. Elder is 69 and he's a lawyer, which will help him understand that he can't just violate the law. But he has been a conservative talk-show host for 33 years. He hasn't run anything. He doesn't manage people. Governor is a management job as much as it is a political job, and he has zero experience. He is not qualified to be a big-city mayor, much less a governor. (Obviously, neither is Paffrath.)

John Cox: I don't love saying this, but Cox is easily the most qualified of the three leading candidates. He was the Republican candidate for governor in 2018; he has run for office several times before, so at least he should know the rules. I don't like his political positions, but he's less extreme than Elder and more sensible than Paffrath.

Now there is a quandary: should I (and you) vote for Cox, the least bad of the top three candidates, or fish around among the other 43 for somebody better?

Kevin Faulconer, former mayor of San Diego, has gotten as much media attention during the recall as anyone other than Caitlyn Jenner. Faulconer is the kind of Republican who would not be a bad governor for this Democratic-majority state: he has generally fiscally conservative but socially liberal views. I am sick of seeing him on my local TV news for the last year talking up the recall; he looks like the opportunist that all these guys are. But he is easily the most qualified candidate among the 46.

Joel Ventresca: If you want to pick somebody because he's a Democrat, it should probably be this guy. He was an administrator at San Francisco airport for 34 years so he understands government and management, and his positions are reliably liberal.

Doug Ose: He spent three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives as a conservative anti-tax politician. While in Congress he tried to pass a bill outlawing the broadcasting of George Carlin's "7  Words You Can Never Say on Television;" inexplicably he replaced "tits" with "asshole." But on this ballot he's the second-most-qualified person. Ugh! (UPDATE: He had a heart attack and has ended his campaign, but he's still on the ballot.)

Dan Kapelovitz: A criminal defense attorney running on the Green Party ticket, his positions will be attractive to liberals. He doesn't have government experience but take a look at his platform; liberal but (unlike Paffrath and many others in this race) also practical about what he could actually accomplish as governor.

Jeff Hewitt: A member of the Riverside County board of supervisors, and it seems like he has been good at it. He's one of the few members of the Libertarian Party to win an election anywhere in the US. We could do a lot worse, but I don't see how he'll get enough support to win statewide.

Caitlyn Jenner: Come on, it's not gonna happen. She has zero experience at running anything, and she's a conservative Republican who conservative Republicans will not support. If they want a conservative media talking head with no other credentials they have Elder.

Denver Stoner: He's a deputy sheriff in rural Alpine County (population 1,129.) The county is actually Democratic but he's a Republican, and if he has political views he hasn't widely shared them. Love the name though, and I worry that some people will check that box thinking he's a Stoner. Busted!

I am a Democrat of the fiscally liberal variety (Sanders/Warren). But more than that or any specific position, I am a pragmatist. I want the person who will do the best job, (usually) regardless of party. I might vote for a Democrat I don't like for national office (cough cough Feinstein) to keep Mitch McConnell or Kevin McCarthy from being majority leader, but I won't do that for state office. Don't be lulled by the hot-vax summer; California faces a continuing crisis, and we need the best leader we can have.

It's not Paffrath. I won't vote for him, even in a calculating leading-Democrat way. If I had to pick one of the three poll leaders, it would be (gulp) Cox the bear-baiter.

I am torn between Faulconer, who I think would be good at the job, and Kapelovitz, who could pull off a late upset if Paffrath's young supporters start paying attention. I like Hewitt well enough but I don't see how he could summon the support to win. Ventresca would be my Democratic candidate of choice but he has no traction in the race.

What I am personally going to do today is this: I'm going to hang onto my ballot for a while to see if anyone emerges from the scrum. I am probably going to vote for either Faulconer or Kapelovitz and I'll wait to see if either gathers any support in the polls.

UPDATE: A new SF Chronicle poll showed that Elder has the most support -- yikes -- and there's no close second, but Faulconer has as much support as any non-Elder candidate so that's who I'm going with. After voting NO of course.

But I'm not going to wait too long. The election is Sept. 14. Ballots must be postmarked by then. So you also can wait but do NOT forget.

To be extremely clear: Vote NO. NO!!!! HELL NO we don't want a talk-show host as governor during a pandemic.

After that, you have to make a choice. UPDATE: I went with Faulconer. Sigh. Seriously, I've been pissed off at this guy for the last year for his opportunism, and yet I'm going to reward him for it. This really is worse than a school-board election.

But that doesn't matter: if you don't want a talk-show host as governor, YOU HAVE TO VOTE!!!

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Drinking & Knowing Things: A book review

Michael Amon
This is a sponsored post: Michael Amon paid me to write about his book. He also offered (and I accepted) to pay my higher pre-publication-preview sponsored-post rate without seeing the post ahead of time, but this is a guy who cites some wine brands that he likes despite ... well, let me just quote him writing something I would never dare to write, about a wine he actually recommends.

"My Tempier discussion comes with a caveat. I think their quality control processes suck. In my experience about one out of every three or four bottles of Tempier is faulted. Sometimes it's too much brett, sometimes cork taint, and sometimes it just tastes bad. You're taking a gamble with it ... If you try a bottle of Tempier Bandol and you don't like it, it may be that you have gotten a bad one. It's like playing the lottery with $80 and a two-thirds chance of winning."*

This is the type of shockingly honest wine advice that runs throughout Drinking & Knowing Things, a self-published compilation book of a weekly email he sent to friends and associates during the pandemic, cluing them in to grape varieties and wine regions that are "Dope AF."

Despite calling himself the World's Leading Wine Influencer (which he apparently did to irritate friends in the wine industry), Amon actually knows even more about wine than he lets on. He's a successful international business consultant who works with some wineries, and he is a stage 2 Master of Wine candidate. He's also involved in planting the first wine grapevines in Bhutan, where he liked the look of the terroir while running a marathon. And he says he has a tattoo of La Tache vineyard on his chest.

His style of writing is conversational, bragging and profane, full of in jokes, and perfectly suited for the 1500 to 2000 word length of his weekly missives. I started out with this book as a toilet companion (I know people who keep The Oxford Companion to Wine in there) and that's an outstanding way to consume these columns, but I wasn't getting the book read fast enough, hence I had to sit down (in a chair) and read the whole thing. It's not the best way to read it, but it was still better than your average intro-to-wine book, which I usually fast-forward through if I have to review because I know the stuff already. Amon is amusing and provocative enough to get me to read about things that I already know about.

I like the unfiltered nature of his writing. He hasn't dealt with editors or the general public, so every now and then you get a frisson of danger, and not just because he can write "fucking" and I can't. I also can't write this:

"Many of the 'best' Champagnes are not. Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label is one of the shittiest Champagnes of all time for the price. If you drink this, you are a victim of marketing and also an idiot. Here's some homework. Get a bottle of Yellow Label, and also of something at the same price point (Pol Roger, Henriot, whatever). Pour a glass of each and drink them side by side. You will immediately notice that the Yellow Label is bitter, tastes rather disjointed and not as smooth, and the bubbles are larger and harsher. Side by side, it's easy to taste the difference. Then enjoy the other bottle while you use the leftover Yellow Label to degrease your lawnmower."*
(*My wife insists I repeat that this is a quote from "Drinking & Knowing Things," written and published by Michael Amon.)

A few years ago a friend texted me from a grocery store where he was about to buy Yellow Label for an anniversary with his wife, and I talked him into something better, but even in a text to a friend I didn't go quite that far. But you know, he's not wrong.

For each of his essays about a region or varietal he offers a couple of specific wine recommendations, and apparently in the email columns you could just click on them to get a Wine Searcher link. But the columns are almost never about individual wines. It's all about him assuming you're not a stupid person, but you don't actually know about Gigondas or Madeira. Even if you do, it's often still entertaining. I found this to be an illuminating observation about why so much varietal Cabernet Franc is disappointing; in writing about the grape, I had not considered it, but I think he must be right:

"I think that one of the reasons that there are a bunch of shitty Cab Francs out there is that producers of Bordeaux style blends grow Cab Franc grapes, and in some years they don't need to put that much of it into the blend. Maybe the Cab Franc that year wasn't that great, or maybe they only needed a little of it or whatever, so they bottle up the rest as a single varietal wine so it doesn't go to waste and they can recoup a little cash from it. And it isn't awesome. You'll know because the winery one year will have a 'special bottling' or 'limited release' or something like that, which will sound very impressive and will magically be a single variety Cab Franc. Avoid these like Coldplay."

Amon likes Cab Francs from Chinon and Saumur Champigny; he's a big Loire fan in general. He also likes Riesling, Arneis, Pinot Noir, Xinomavro and Nerello Mascalese. He hates Robert Parker and too much oak; he thinks "old vines" are a marketing scam. I should thank him because ... confession alert ... I didn't actually know what Bourgogne Passe-Tout-Grains is, and now I can't wait to try it.

Where he falls short is on more general topics, and maybe this is because he's like your really drunk smart friend talking loudly in a bar, and that person is much more fun to listen to when explaining how to make your own Madeira-type wine at home than describing what exactly tannins are, or how food-pairing works. And your tolerance for in jokes will vary: I emailed him asking "Who's Ann?" (partner) and "Who's Erik?" (coworker) I think this is a product of him not writing for a general audience. Amon writes like there's a club and it's inclusive so that you can be a member -- all you have to do is be interested in wine -- but he is definitely club president.

Would I praise this book if I wasn't being paid by the author to review it? That's a thought experiment I can't answer, as I probably would have never picked it up; intro-to-wine books just aren't my jam. But the fact is I did get a kick out of it.

You can order the book here.

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

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Professional wine tasting notes are for the reader, not the writer

Ten years ago I went to the Professional Wine Writers’ Symposium and hated the session on writing tasting notes so much that I have complained about it ever since. This year the Symposium went virtual, with an interesting, diverse set of speakers, so I signed up. 

Perhaps this was predictable: while I enjoyed some of it, I hated the sessions on tasting notes so much that I was either going to complain for the next 10 years, or write this rant.

Here is the TL;DR version:

* The point of being a professional wine writer is to get paid. That's what “professional” means.

* A professional writer writes for two audiences: readers, and the editor.

* Professional tasting notes are for the reader (or paying editor), not the writer.

* The point is to communicate an idea of what the wine tastes like. 

* Most tasting notes are boring. Long conversations about them are even more boring.

* Everybody hates scores! Except for most of the wine trade and most consumers.

* The writers who score are more successful than the writers who don’t.

Now here's the rant version:

Naturally the session kicked off by mocking a Robert Parker tasting note. They are eminently mockable. But Parker is by far the most successful professional writer of tasting notes the world has ever seen. This is like directors of dinner theater mocking big Hollywood movies. 

Here is what Parker did better than anybody: he communicated excitement. Berries burst from the glass. Flavors explode in your mouth. The finish lasts for a full minute! It’s easy to mock the fruit salad nouns of blackberries, huckleberries, marionberries, loganberries, etc. Where Parker succeeded was the verbs. Wines in Parker's tasting notes were alive and active. 

I say this despite the fact that Parker’s 99-point wines, where he found endless layers of flavor, often tasted like monolithic assaults on my mouth. But that's a question of personal taste, not Parker's writing. 

Lyrical writers like to call Parker clumsy. Maybe they are Mozart and he is Salieri. But in writing tasting notes, we are not drafting a masterwork that a future generation will discover 100 years from now. 

After attacking Parker, a writer who’s retired, the Symposium failed to talk about any of the current Advocate writers, or the Wine Spectator critics, or Antonio Galloni of Vinous, or Jeb Dunnuck, or James Suckling. These are people who make a living writing tasting notes! Unlike Eric Asimov or Jancis Robinson, who would be successful wine writers if they never wrote another tasting note, these writers’ whole careers are based on them.

Are they the best at it? Define “best.” They have people who pay for subscriptions to read their tasting notes every month. Do you? I don't.

Encouraging writers to write unusual tasting notes is a literary exercise in the worst literary genre imaginable, and it’s not the path to getting paid. If there’s a publication out there that will pay writers for tasting notes in haiku, I want to write for them. (Text me!) But, generally, they don’t. I loved WineX magazine as literature; it famously described a wine as "Brad Pitt stepping out of the shower." If somebody got paid to write that, more power to them. But I have no idea what that actually tastes like (and frankly, ewww). It’s no coincidence that Wine Advocate is still in business and WineX is not.

Rant Part Two

Writers should be aware that others don't share the same cultural references. English critics often say wines taste like “pear drop;” I have no idea what that tastes like. An Indian sommelier on the panel said she had read about blackberry flavors for years – but had never tasted blackberries, because they don't grow in India. OK, remember that if you write for an international readership (I do.) 

What I am trying to do, in a tasting note, is give you some sense of how the wine tastes. I also use that opportunity often to do a little more storytelling -- but about the wine, not about myself. 

If I write a feature about Oregon Malbec, I sometimes add a tidbit that doesn’t fit in the main story, but might help you appreciate the wine. If I have 35 words for a tasting note, I might spend 25 on storytelling. But those other 10 words have to explain whether or not readers will like the wine.

A lot comes down to ripeness and body. For me, "restrained," "fresh," "savory" and even "salty" are positives. But many consumers want powerful, rich, fruit-driven wines. If you help your reader it's easy for someone who doesn't share your taste to parse your notes to see if a wine might appeal to them.

The Symposium did make a few useful points. Nobody should call a wine "masculine" or "feminine" in 2021 because nobody knows what that means anymore; half the women in San Francisco can kick my ass, and the other half say, "What do you mean, only half?" Using the word "exotic" just says you're not a very international person. Why would yellow curry be "exotic" and not tater tots? 

When bloggers get together, we tend to support the most florid, least helpful tasting notes possible. We praise the literary quality of lengthy notes that can be poems or meditations on the writer's childhood.

Twice in the last 10 years, I held my tongue in the Symposium while everyone praised tasting notes like -- these were actual ones from this year -- "It reminds me of the trunk of my grandfather's car," or shades of Wine X, "That tastes like kissing Antonio Banderas." (We need more info -- is he a smoker?)

But we’ve been round this problem before. We had this conversation 10 years ago and, just like last week, the discussion quickly deteriorated into exactly the same kind of discussion bloggers always have about tasting notes. If you want to blog and write whatever you want for no money, then do so -- that's what I'm doing right now. But if you want to be a professional, it's an entirely different conversation.

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

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Beautiful scenes from this spring's dangerous frost in Tuscany

The story of 2021 for the wine industry in most of France is going to be the devastating frost that might reduce the crop by half or more, nationwide.

Until I got an email this morning from a winery in Tuscany, I wasn't aware that Italy faced the same fear. Nor, I'm sorry to say, do I know anything about the extent of the damage in Italy.

Take a look at these photos taken on the nights of Apr. 7 and 8 by Enea Barbieri at Tenuta di Trinoro in the Val d'Orcia region of Tuscany. Val d'Orcia is right next to Montalcino, so if it experienced a frost event last week, it's likely that Montalcino did also, and I worry about nearby Montepulciano as well.  

The PR firm that sent the photos didn't say anything about damage to the grapes. Temperatures apparently reached -4.5º Celsius. The vines themselves are not at risk from temperatures that low but after budbreak, it is possible to lose that year's crop.

Thus the winery staff of 36 spent the day and night placing 3000 impromptu candles made of buckets filled with wax. 


The press release says, "At Tenuta di Trinoro operations started at around midnight, with careful monitoring of the falling temperatures, until fire had to be set to stacks of firewood piled around the vineyards; then the 3.000 candles were lit. This kept the air around the plants above 0° degrees, while all around the vineyards, temperatures as low as 4.5° below freezing point were registered."

Pre-pandemic I had the privilege of visiting Tuscany often and, in addition to making some of the world's best wines, it is a beautiful place. Art is a part of life there, so perhaps it's not surprising that  photographer Enea Barbieri could find aesthetic inspiration in difficult circumstances.

There's nothing more I can say but to send my best wishes to the vignerons of France and of Tuscany for better weather going forward in this challenging year. And thanks to Tenuta di Trinoro for turning trauma into inspiration. 

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

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

How do people choose which wine to buy? An informal survey

Last month I was staring at three bottles of wine. Each was the same grape variety and from the same basic region (but not sub-region). I didn't know anything about the producers so there was no reason to blind-taste, but before diving in nose-first, I got to wondering -- if I was in a store or restaurant, and these three very similar bottles were on offer, which would I choose?

This is a question that comes up for wine lovers all the time. You're in a store; you want, say, Sauvignon Blanc. There are three from a region you like from producers you don't know. How do you choose?

I put the question on Twitter. My Twitter followers are not a randomized group. I have never done any data analysis (and don't worry, I never will), but I assume that at base, they are people very interested in wine and in learning more about it. This is a niche in the wine market, but one that spends a lot of money on wine. So what would my followers say?

What most surprised me is that most people did not mention price. Also, very few people mentioned critic's reviews, though several mentioned social-review aggregator sites.

A few wine retailers suggested asking the retailer for guidance, and I support that suggestion, but it's not an option at big stores that don't specialize in wine (Costco or supermarkets, for example) or restaurants with no sommelier on duty.

I collected some of the most enlightening responses. I wasn't looking for wit (though I got plenty; my followers are clever.) Instead I was looking for honesty: a window into why people choose the wines they do. 

One thing is universal: the label matters. We may all interpret its message differently, but it matters. For many years when I bought French wines I was a sucker for a bottle with a croix on the label; I'm not religious so I can't explain it. I can explain some of my other parameters: lower alcohol for me is is a plus, though I don't apply it to differences less than 0.5%. Organic or biodynamic viticulture is a plus. I try to avoid wines where the tasting notes on the back label sound like something I wouldn't enjoy (very helpful with Chardonnays.) But would I pick a single-vineyard wine over a regional wine of the same price? I'm not sure.

Here is what my Twitter followers said (each is a separate comment; I haven't formatted all as tweets):

actually, I would purchase all 3, taste them, and only then go back and purchase the one I liked best.

Assuming I didn't know any of the producers and couldn't research them on my phone: vintage especially for places like Bdx, any tech. info like pH and oak aging to determine the style, and finally the price.


I would choose the label that has an animal on it.

Region for varietal, then price as a guide, then interwebs/ Vivino for reviews


Probably the label that WASN’T touting ORGANIC and BioDynamic whatnots...

If I were in a retail outlet, I’d ask their opinion. Otherwise I’d see what they said online as well as what others said about them online. Failing either of those options being available, either the most resolutely old-school in its packaging or the confidently off-the-wall. 


I’d check the back labels, see who the importer was, and go with the one I was familiar with. 

Bio of owner/winemaker. Looking for people I know about in their background. I have found a lot of great new wines by following winemaker's interns. Then CellarTracker, Wine Berserkers, or industry people who I trust and align with their palates.

Two answers: 1. ABV%, Vintage, $. 2. Champagne


Producer , importer , price

Artistic merits of label.

Fun question. Assuming I knew zero about the producers, I’d have a quick look at Delectable/CellarTracker, scan avg takes, look for ppl I recognize and how they describe the character.

Vineyard 1st. Failing knowledge or Google the label.

I face this question all the time and it's the reason I go with the recs of a retailer I know and trust. Lacking that, I look for something distinguishing on the label, such as certified organic grapes.

Prettiest label.


This one is my favorite, because I assume he's telling the truth and it's an interesting idea:


You know what nobody at all mentioned? Closure type. Nobody said they would buy the one with the screwcap, or the one with the cork.

The data is not at all scientific, but one of the most interesting things about an exercise like this is to learn that even among people with similar interests, we all think differently.

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

Monday, January 18, 2021

I drank smoke-tainted canned wine and liked it

Sans Wine Co. makes some of the best canned wines in the country, and to prove that fact they held an online media tasting last week of three different vintages from three varieties. They wanted to prove that canned wine can last on the shelves: apparently it can, as the 2017s were just fine in 2021. I also learned something more significant.

We tasted nine canned wines: three Cabernet Sauvignons, three Carignans and three Rieslings. I'm not talented enough to interview people, taste wine and take notes all at the same time, so I tasted the wines beforehand.

My favorite wine of the nine was Sans Coyote Rock Block Poor Ranch Vineyards Mendocino County Carbonic Carignan 2018. I'll share my notes, unedited after what I later learned, out of respect for Sans owners Jake Stover and Gina Schober, who have pledged to be completely transparent about their wines.

"Much like the '17: smells fruity, red berries, a little denser. Best aroma of the three. Juicy, fruity, with enough freshness and good depth. Ambitious: this is a wine that's not just trying to be portable. But it still has the immediate appeal of a carbonic* wine."

(* "Carbonic" means carbonic maceration, a technique often used in Beaujolais that usually results in fruity, easy-to-drink wines.)

 Well, that aroma and depth of flavor I liked so much were apparently enhanced by 8 mcg/liter of smoke taint compounds, which is, according to ETS Laboratories, above the perceivable threshhold (Stover said ETS says 6 mcg/liter is the threshhold.)

Stover, who makes the wines for Sans, says their Zinfandel from the same vintage, which we didn't taste, also has smoke taint above the threshhold.

"We're trying to be as transparent as possible," Stover said. "It does show to us (in the Zinfandel) but it's also a lot of people's favorite wine."

Just as Stover and Schober risk some of their reputation by being honest, so am I. At professional tastings there's often a lot of one-upmanship on finding "corked" wines. I have sat with many <del>egotists</del> professionals who want to make sure everyone at the table knows they were RIGHT about that wine, and they noticed it first.

I didn't catch the smoke taint in the Carignan, and I liked it when tasting it, so I decided to double down and we drank that wine with dinner. The safe thing to do would be to say, "Oh, now I get it. Ewww!" (Something else I have seen many people do at professional tastings.) That didn't happen.

Knowing that I was consuming a smoke-tainted wine didn't change a thing: We had it with country ham and beans, and it was fine; we finished the (375 ml) can. Granted, that was smoke on smoke, but I didn't choose the meal based on the wine; it was what we were planning to have anyway. Ironically, the 2017 Sans McGill Vineyard Rutherford Riesling, which I liked on its own and which wasn't smoke-tainted, was not as good with the meal. Maybe the smoke helped the Carignan.

You could take that under advisement: if you have a wine that you believe might be smoke-tainted, maybe drink it with barbecue. But honestly, I liked it just fine on its own. 

UC Davis professor Anita Oberholster said last year that about 25 percent of people cannot detect smoke taint in wine. Perhaps I am in that 25 percent. If so, I'm really lucky, as I will be able to fully enjoy a lot of deeply discounted wine in the next couple years.

There are other possible explanations:

* The smoke taint compounds were barely over the threshhold. Perhaps I would have noticed a little more smoke taint, or I would have noticed it more in a different grape variety like Pinot Noir.

* Guaiacol compounds, like sulfites, are naturally occurring in wine grapes and oak barrels and perhaps this particular low level worked like oak staves, adding flavor without being a negative.

* Smoke taint can bind with compounds in the wine and be released months or even years after bottling. It's possible that these compounds were still bound and therefore not truly perceptible, even though they were technically over the limit.

The last caveat is an important one. Maybe if I drank the same can of wine a year later, more bound compounds would have been released and I would have noticed it. If you suspect a wine in your cellar might be smoke-tainted, it's smart to drink it sooner rather than later.

I respect Stover and Schober's honesty and suggest that you try their wines. Their business is based around making good single-vineyard wine from quality locations and adding nothing to it, not even sulfites. That may be safer in canned wines because, unlike in a bottle, there is no headspace of air below the cork or screwcap; a can can be completely oxygen-free. This is probably why they were able to prove their point. Sans wines are real wines and have vintage variation, but I noticed no deterioration over time.

Ironically, it's easier to find their wines in bottles right now because Whole Foods liked their canned Carignan enough that it asked them to bottle some up for national distribution. It's Whole Foods: after Schober pounded the pavement to get small stores to carry their relatively pricey cans (most sell for $10), the business they founded to make quality canned wines currently makes more bottled wines.

"There's a surprising amount of Carignan planted in California," Stover said. "The key is finding old vine vineyards. There's enough Carignan out there for 600,000 cases. We'll never get there." Right now they're just under 10,000 cases, bottles and cans combined.

I tried their Carignan in the bottle a few weeks ago and liked it: it's vibrant, with a tart red plum character that's both refreshing and food-friendly. I don't know if that one had smoke taint also, and since I enjoyed it I don't care.

If you want to test your own threshhold, buy the Sans Carbonic Carignan here.

Read my feature from 2017 about how a Tinder date led to this canned-wine couple.

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