Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Robert Parker, Emperor of Wine: Book review

This is the full version of a review which appeared in edited form in Barrons, August 8, 2005

It’s hard to divine who gets the French in a bigger bipolar snit: President George Bush or wine’s über-critic Robert Parker whose newsletter, The Wine Advocate, can make or break a wine, a vintage, a winery or an entire region.

In The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste, author Elin McCoy offers us a vivid picture of Gallic pride and intensity following Parker’s description of the 1981 Château Cheval Blanc barrel samples as “’disappointing’ and ‘mediocre.’” Château owner Jacque Hèbrard tracked down Parker and persuaded him to re-taste the wine.

When Parker arrived and knocked on the door, “Hèbrard opened it and out tore a small dog, a miniature schnauzer which made straight for Parker’s calf and bit down ferociously. Hèbrard…stood impassively by the door, watching the astonished wine critic shaking his leg vigorously to get the dog to let go.”

McCoy notes that Hèbrard did nothing to stop the dog’s attack, and after Parker shook off the dog by himself, Hèbrard led Parker – pants ripped and leg bleeding – to the château’s office. “Instead of getting the bandage Parker requested,” McCoy writes, “Hèbrard rummaged around for his copy of The Wine Advocate, which he angrily threw on the desk, saying, ‘This is what you wrote about my wine!’”

One can suppose Parker should grateful that Hèbrard had a mop dog rather than a pit bull.
McCoy’s book makes it clear that Hèbrard acted out what many others on the short end of Parker’s tasting stick had only dreamed of.

On the other side of the equation are those like Napa Valley’s Patz & Hall Winery who have canonized Parker. “In April 1991, they had been desperate and depressed. Their 1989 wines had flopped. They were running out of money and after a huge tax bill, they had $600 in their bank account and wine in barrels that they could not afford to bottle.”

Then came a Parker miracle worthy of sainthood: Parker gave them a 92 rating. The wine sold out. They were instantly in the black. A thorough reading of McCoy’s book shows that the number of these “miracles” far exceeds those required by Papal commissions for Catholic sainthood.

Parker is a devil; Parker is an angel: Few people in the wine business, media or among wine fanatics have a neutral opinion. McCoy offers us the best portrait yet of the man, his sins, virtues, deeds which form the foundation of this intense polarization and of his success.

The French are bipolar about him because he single-handedly turned consumers against mediocre wines from over-rated châteaux run by the French equivalent of decadent Faulknerian aristocracy whose only claim to greatness was in faded memories of the past and not in the bottle. On the other hand, He was awarded the French Legion of Honor mostly for helping revitalize the sales of Bordeaux clarets in the 1980s.

But beyond the French who are bipolar about so many things from war to Big Macs, McCoy makes clear that Parker's invention of the 100-point system is the single largest bone of contention. She expresses the view of many – even those who are Parkerites – when she writes, "I find scoring wine with numbers a joke in scientific terms and misleading in thinking about either the quality or pleasure of wine, something that turns wine into a contest instead of an experience."

Yes, it is the worst system in the world – except for all the rest. The fact is clear that the system would never have caught on had it not struck a chord with the consumer. McCoy is also correct that a single number is not the wine and that using the 100-point system implies a precision that does not exist. However, single numbers can – and do – affect the lives of people. Consider SAT test scores, FICO credit ratings, The Dow Industrials and others. If there is a better way -- such as the one developed by Master Sommelier Peter Granoff for the original Virtual Vineyards web site -- then the wine industry should push for its adoption.

Following close on the heels of the 100-point system is criticism that Parker's palate is too personal, that he likes big, fruity wines and ignores other styles which others may prefer. This, along with Parker's influence, has resulted, McCoy writes, in vintners making their wine to suit Parker's palate and that, in turn, as produced a global Americanization of wine.

McCoy accomplishes a lot with this book, but begins Emperor with a particularly annoying and unnecessary set of snobbish errors when she describes Parker’s secondary education: “While most of the students at this ‘redneck’ high school were 4-H club future farmers, Parker was in the college-bound program for smart kids….”

McCoy’s probably unaware that one needs to be smart to be a farmer and that today most have college degrees. Further, she’d be shocked – as do those “Sideways” urbanites who buy wineries and have to get mud on their Pradas – that wine at its core is farming and that everyone from those who prune the vines all the way to the winemaker need to be smart, very, very smart. The final irony in this line is McCoy’s noting that Parker’s first and only job as a lawyer was for the Farm Credit Bank in Baltimore. As it happens, Farm Credit is a major – perhaps the largest – financier of vineyards and wineries in California. One should never forget that one is only as far away from farming as one's next meal.

Despite these and a scattering of other wine-snobbisms, this is a very solid book, well-written, copiously documented and presenting a well-rounded picture of the man so many love to hate and hate to love. I've been involved in the wine industry on and off for nearly 25 years as an importer, publisher, journalist, book author and judge at international wine competitions and found this a valuable, even-handed book which will offer ammunition to both poles in the debate.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

How Certain Wines Get Boring

I mentioned wine writer Craig Camp's article "Fear of Wine: 100 Points of Perfection," where he also complains about the trend of American winemakers (and, increasingly, international winemakers looking for export markets) to make their wines all taste alike.

This is true, and it will help explain an oddity about wines to you, the wine enthusiast. When you start enjoying wines, you likely drink a limited number of types, because that's what you liked. You drink Chards, or Cabs, or Pinots, or Australian Shirazes. And you look for more Chards, Cabs, or Pinots that taste similar to the other ones you liked.

Then one day you go to a winetasting event and try something unfamiliar; say, Petit Syrahs. You find, to your surprise, that each one you try tastes quite different from each other one you try. Brand X's PS has one kind of taste, Brand Y's PS tastes completely different. It's a puzzlement.

The reason simply is that most winemakers respond to their perceived markets. When a particular type of wine becomes popular, and sales go up, volume winemakers try to figure out what it is about that particular type of wine that drinkers are responding to. Is it the bright cherry notes? The sweet lingering aftertaste? The creamy oakiness? Then they start tuning their winemaking to imitate the tastes of the most popular wine of that type on the market.

Of course they would! The problem is, after a while, all the popularly-priced wines of that type taste more alike than different.

This happened first with Merlots, back in the 1980s. Merlots were the first "grown-up" red wine to gain popularity among the Boomers (like me). It can be light, approachable, easy to drink, yet with flavor enough for a real wine. And back then, the variety of styles of Merlots meant that each bottle you'd try from a different vintner would be a surprise as each vintner interpreted the Merlot style a bit differently. It was fun to drink Merlot!

Until everybody was drinking it. Wine growers put in thousands of acres more Merlot vines--often putting them on any open land, without regard to its suitability to that grape. As a result, a lot of simply bad Merlot crowded the market. At the same time, Merlot winemakers all headed in the same direction, producing uninspired, bland, plain, general-purpose Merlots intended to hit the middle of the market squarely on, as inoffensively as possible.

That's the kind of Merlot the character in Sideways is complaining about. Basically, they ruined Merlot for a generation. Now you can find good Merlots, but you have to know what you're looking for, and you'll pay a lot more than you used to: Geyser Peak, for example, makes a real Merlot, if you want to see what a real Merlot actually tastes like. But it costs around $30 a bottle.

Cabernets have been hit by this same flight-to-sameness syndrome, though not quite as badly because Cabs are difficult and expensive to grow, so they will never be the standard mass-market $10 bottle of wine (there are $10 Cabs but they are very uneven). But these days, you can pay $20, or $30, or $50 for a Cabernet and you'll be rolling the dice on whether you get a pretty nice bottle of wine, or an uninspired, insipid, bland red.

The Shirazes of Australia have been an enjoyable and fresh alternative for many years now; less than $10 gets you a nice fun wine, and every label makes it a bit different. This is the kind of fun wine that Merlots used to be decades ago. It amazes me, though, that the volume winemakers in Australia, like Yellow Tail and Rosemount, have managed to increase production to Gallo levels but haven't quite managed to lose the fun in their wines. God bless 'em!

If you really want to have fun with your wine these days, try Roses. Not White Zinfandel, mind you, but the countless types of Roses made in the US and in France, but not that easy to find, because White Zin ruined the idea of Rose for most Americans. You are going to have to trust me on this: White Zin is not the only way Rose can taste.

There are more different kinds of Roses than any other wine style, simply because you can make a Rose out of any red-skinned grape: There are the classic French dry Pinot Noire Roses, as well as Roses made from Zinfandel, from Merlot, from Cab, from Syrah and Shiraz, and Grenache, and everything else. And not only do each of these types of Rose taste different, but each winemaker makes his own Roses different from every other Rose maker. Reason: You can't really sell enough Rose in the U.S. to make it profitable, so most winemakers are making Rose as a labor of love, according to their own individual tastes, without trying to please some marketer's "definition."

I promise you, if you find a Rose tasting in your area, go--and you will have the most amazing, fun, varied, and astonishing wine drinking experience of your life. There will be plenty of them you won't like--and even more of them you will. Whether you like light or heavy, sweet or dry or something in between, fruity or flowery or neither -- you will find many Roses to please your surprised palate!

Try it -- and have some fun with your winetasting!

Why Are Some Wines So Heavy, and Other Wines So Light?

Wine writer Craig Camp, in his article "Fear of Wine: 100 Points of Perfection," complains about two problems in the wine business: First, that American wines tend to be heavy, high in alcohol, and intense in flavor, compared to European wines. And second, that American winemakers (and, increasingly, international winemakers looking for export markets) tend to develop their wines over time so that all their wines of a certain type taste like the same wines from all other producers -- so that we wine lovers end up losing out on the variety of styles, and of the different local "terroir" characteristics of the wines.

On the first point -- the tendency of American red wines to be "big" wines -- I think I have figured out why that is. The way we drink wines in the USA is very different from the way they drink wine in Europe, and the style of our wines reflects this perfectly. And not surprisingly.

I noticed this on a recent tour of Europe: The wines served at each dinner were very light, mild, and easy to drink. They weren't intense and strongly flavored. Now, I *like* intense wines; my favorites are big, fat Rosenblum Zinfandels. Yet I really enjoyed these light-styled and inexpensive Italian and French wines.

Why? Because I was drinking them over dinner. Not as a kind of cocktail, but as a *beverage*.

Whereas most commonly I drink wine back home at wine tastings, winery events, or in the evening after dinner.

Now think about this: If you are drinking wine with your dinner, you want a wine that isn't yelling at you while you're trying to eat. You don't want a big, extracted fruit bomb -- it's distracting. Instead, you want something that takes second place to the meal.

On the other hand, we Americans disproportionally drink our wines at tastings and events and wineries, and *there* it's the wine that's big and bold and dramatic that stands out--and that wins ribbons and scores of 94 and that we mention to our friends.

When the wine is the center of attention, it has to stand out. When the food is the center of attention, the wine has to step back.

So the winemakers of Europe play to the way their people drink their wine. And US winemakers do likewise, to the very different way their people drink their wine. Obviously. Well, obvious now that we think about it.

Of course, it helps that the weather in France is cooler (until global warming fully kicks in) than the weather in, say, California; it's hard to produce a big wine with many fewer days of heat and sun, so it's nice to be able to make a virtue of that necessity. Similarly, you'll notice that it's the Oregon and Washington State Pinot Noires that are most like their European counterparts--namely, light and mild and subtle--whereas California Pinots are often more dramatic; it's teh difference in the weather.

So who is right? Which is the better, or more sophisticated, or more refined style of wines? Neither, of course -- and both.

When we stopped by a winery in the Finger Lakes of New York last year, we were surprised at the American-grape varietels: They were very pale red instead of intensely colored, and light-drinking instead of big and fat. And yet they were absolutely delicious in their own way. And I say this as someone whose favorite wine is a Rockpile Road Zin.

All we American wine lovers need to realize is that there are these two styles and usage patterns. Once we grasp that, we can dial our wine style to what we're doing: If the wine is for winner, we can look for European-style food-friendly low-tannin, low-alcohol, mild wines made in the European style (even if they are Oregon or Long Island wines). And when we're having a wine occasion, we serve American-style own-reason-for-existence wines with punch and intense flavors. To each style its best use!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Moore's Law: Wine Price Versus Taste

A decade or more ago, I upset the hell out of a lot of people in the wine industry when one of my publications, Wine Business Monthly, published a study showing that the current use of the 100-point scale for rating wines, was statistically invalid.

In other words, the numbers that even the most experienced tasters gave a wine might as well have been pulled from a nether part of their anatomy as from their palates.

Not surprisingly, a recent Stanford study proving how the price of a wine affects the way people rate it, got short shrift from both the wine trade pub as well as the consumer geek-snob mags like the Wine Expectorator.

The general press had a hey-day with the results, but offered few details.

I'm working to obtain a copy of the actual study, until then, here are more details, courtesy of the Stanford News Service (the cartoon, above, is also from Stanford):

Price changes way people experience wine, study finds

In what will be music to the ears of marketers, the old adage that you get what you pay for really is true when it comes to that most ephemeral of products: bottled wine.

According to researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the California Institute of Technology, if a person is told he or she is tasting two different wines—and that one costs $5 and the other $45 when they are, in fact, the same wine—the part of the brain that experiences pleasure will become more active when the drinker thinks he or she is enjoying the more expensive vintage.

"What we document is that price is not just about inferences of quality, but it can actually affect real quality," said Baba Shiv, a professor of marketing who co-authored a paper titled "Marketing Actions Can Modulate Neural Representations of Experienced Pleasantness," published online Jan. 14 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "So, in essence, [price] is changing people's experiences with a product and, therefore, the outcomes from consuming this product."

Shiv, an expert in how emotion affects decision-making, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to conduct the study with co-authors Hilke Plassmann, a former Stanford postdoctoral researcher; Antonio Rangel, a former Stanford economist; and psychologist John O'Doherty. (Both Plassmann and Rangel are now at Caltech.) Although researchers have used fMRI scans in recent years to gauge brain activity, the study is one of the first to test subjects as they swallow liquid—in this case, wine—through a pump attached to their mouths, a tricky complication because the scanner requires people to lie very still as it measures blood flow in the brain.

According to Shiv, a basic assumption in economics is that a person's "experienced pleasantness" (EP) from consuming a product depends only on its intrinsic properties and the individual's thirst. However, marketers try to influence this experience by changing a drink's external properties, such as its price. "This type of influence is valuable for companies, because EP serves as a learning signal that is used by the brain to guide future choices," the paper says. Contrary to this basic assumption, several studies have shown that marketing can influence how people value goods. For example, Shiv has shown that people who paid a higher price for an energy drink, such as Red Bull, were able to solve more brain teasers than those who paid a discounted price for the same product.

Despite the pervasive influence of marketing, very little is known about how neural mechanisms affect decision-making, the researchers said. "Here, we propose a mechanism though which marketing actions can affect decision-making," they write. "We hypothesized that changes in the price of a product can influence neural computations associated with EP." Because perceptions about quality are positively correlated with price, the scholars argued that someone might expect an expensive wine to taste better than a cheaper one. Their hypothesis went further, stipulating that a person's anticipated experience would prompt higher activity in the part of the brain that experiences pleasure, the medial orbitofrontal cortex, or mOFC, in the forehead.

Shiv, a native of India, said he decided to study wine because so many people, especially in the Golden State, are crazy about it. "I'm just fascinated with wine," he said. "It has always amused me how much time and effort people put into this hobby. I couldn't understand it until I moved to California and started appreciating the whole thing. But, in the back of my mind, the price variation in wines has always puzzled me. You can go from spending $4 to $200 to $300 and up a bottle. Why are people going for that? Some are trying to show off, but most people are not. They are very serious about it, and they think that the more expensive it is, the better it is. That has always befuddled me. Is it really that people are getting more pleasure from it? Or do they just think so?"

The study

The researchers recruited 11 male Caltech graduate students who said they liked and occasionally drank red wine. The subjects were told that they would be trying five different Cabernet Sauvignons, identified by price, to study the effect of sampling time on flavor. In fact, only three wines were used—two were given twice. The first wine was identified by its real bottle price of $5 and by a fake $45 price tag. The second wine was marked with its actual $90 price and by a fictitious $10 tag. The third wine, which was used to distract the participants, was marked with its correct $35 price. A tasteless water was also given in between wine samples to rinse the subjects' mouths. The wines were given in random order, and the students were asked to focus on flavor and how much they enjoyed each sample.


The participants said they could taste five different wines, even though there were only three, and added that the wines identified as more expensive tasted better. The researchers found that an increase in the perceived price of a wine did lead to increased activity in the mOFC because of an associated increase in taste expectation. Shiv said he expects enophiles will challenge the results, since his subjects were not professional connoisseurs. "Will these findings replicate among experts?" he asked. "We don't know, but my speculation is that, yes, they will. I expect that the enophiles will show more of these effects, because they really care about it."

According to Shiv, the emotional and hedonic areas of the brain could be fundamental to making good decisions because they serve as a navigational device. "The brain is super-efficient," he said. "There seems to be this perfect overlap in one part of the brain between what happens in real time and what happens when people anticipate something. It's almost acting as a GPS system. This seems to be the navigational device that helps us learn what is the right thing to do the next time around."

This research was supported with grants from the National Science Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

HMMMMM -- the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation? I wonder if we should call this study the Moore's Law of wine?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

My Rosenblum Cellars Besides Zin Wine Tasting for The Pompous Twits tasting group

I hosted our winetasting group, The Pompous Twits, April 19th (2008) for a reprise of my tasting last year, where we tried a number of wines from Rosenblum Cellars, of Alameda, California, going beyond Rosenblum's famed Zins to see what else they are making these days.

The Rosenblum Redux tasting this year, at the excellent Paradisio Restaurant at the Castro Valley (CA) golf club, was a big hit -- 18 Twits showed up to sample a cross-section of Rosenblum's finest -- not just their traditional Zinfandels, but numerous others as well -- mainly with a focus on California-grown Rhone-style grapes and blends.

Despite the variety, one Rosenblum twist was evident in all the wines: They were all high in alcohol, even the whites, which ranged from 14.5 to 15.0%! The lowest was the Rhodes Petite Sirah at "only" 13.8% alcohol, while the highest was the classic Rockpile Road Zin at 16.3%! Luckily we only tasted 17 wines (plus a nonRosenblum Dave Hulet brought)!

Flight 1: Whites
1. Rosenblum Preston Vineyard Marsanne, Dry Creek Valley, 2006, 14.5% ($25)
2. Rosenblum Santa Barbara County Roussanne, Appellation Series, 2005, 15.0% ($18)
3. Rosenblum Chateau La Paws Cote du Bone Blanc, White Wine, 2006, 14.6% ($14)

The first flight was three whites -- Marsanne, Roussanne, and Cote du Bone Blanc, all Rhone-style blends. The Roussanne was especialy rich and ripe, while the Cote du Bone Blanc Gail Engstrom dubbed a "deck wine" -- one that would be great sitting out on the deck on a warm summer evening!

Flight 2: Reds
4. Rosenblum Rhodes Vineyard Grenache, Redwood Valley, 2006, 14.5% ($25)
5. Rosenblum Contra Costa County Mourvedre, 2006, 14.0% ($18)
6. Rosenblum Russian River Valley Merlot, Appellation Series, 2005, 14.8% ($18)
7. Rosenblum Holbrook Mitchell Trio Red Wine (Meritage), Napa Valley, 2004, 15.7% ($25)

The second flight included a Grenache, a Mourvedre, a Merlot, and a Holbrook Mitchell Trio Meritage. Lots of people especially like dthe Grenache.

Flight 3: Mostly Syrahs
8. Rosenblum Vintner's Cuvee Syrah, California, 2005, 15.0% ($12)
9. Rosenblum Chateau La Paws Cote du Bone Roan, California Red Wine, 2005, 14.9% ($14)
10. Rosenblum Abba Vineyard Syrah, Lodi, 2005, 14.9% ($20)
11. Rosenblum Rhodes Vineyard Petite Sirah, Redwood Valley, 2005, 13.8% ($20)

The third flight was nearly all California Syrahs of one kind or another: the Vintner's Cuvee Syrah, a Chateau La Paws Cote du Bone Roan Rhone-style blend of Carignane, Syrah, and Mourvedre, with a Rosenblum twist of some Zin in there; an QAbba Vineyard Syrah from Lodi--rich and fruity as one would expect but not flabby; and a Rhodes Petite Sirah that many of our tasters liked.

Flight 4: Super-Zins!
12. Rosenblum Rockpile Road Vineyard Zinfandel, 2004, 16.3% ($25)
13. Rosenblum Snows Lake Vineyard Zinfandel, Lake County, 2004, 15.5% ($35)

With the fourth flight we entered Zin territory, starting with a 2004 Rockpile Road Vineyard Zinfandel that was stunningly jammy and dense. Second was a 2004 Snows Lake Vineyard Zin that at first was knocked over by the Rockpile, but Tom Tilley detected some subtleties in it and predicted that as it opened up in the glass it would turn into a powerhouse every bit equal to the Rockpile - and by gad, he was right! By the end of the evening, the Snows Lake has opened up to reveal both richness and subtle refinement that put it on equal footing, or maybe even slightly above, the Rockpile - if you can believe that! Tom recommended we take another look at it next year -- fortunately, I have a bottle of same left, and Joe and Ann Farias have two bottles of that same year! So we can try a bottle each year for three years, see when exactly it turns perfect! (And of course there aren't any left to buy when we DO find the perfect timing!)

(Note that these two cost me the prices listed when I bought them as futures a few years ago; both brands are now in the $45 range for the current releases--and you can't find the prior releases to buy anywhere, unfortunately!

Flight 5: Reds Not Zins
14. Rosenblum Aparicio Vineyard Zinfandel, Amador County, 2004, 14.9% ($20)
15. Rosenblum Eagle Point Vineyard Zinfandel, Mendocino County, 2004, 15.3% ($22)
16. Rosenblum Harris Kratka Vineyard Zinfandel, Alexander Valley, 2005, 14.7% ($28)
17. Rosenblum Richard Sauret Vineyard Zinfandel, Paso Robles, 2006, 14.7% ($20)

Flight 5 showed four Zins from four different parts of California: Aparicio Vineyard in Amador County 2004, Eagle Point VIneyard from Mendocino Co., 2004, Harris Kratka Vineyard in Alexander Valley 2005, and Richard Sauret Vineyard in Paso Robles, 2006. This was a real tough call as to which was tastier -- as Jerry Rose said, each was very different and they were all fabulous!

A great tasting with a great bunch of Twits made it another Pompous Month to Remember!


2007 Livermore Valley, CA, Harvest Wine Festival---yum!

The annual Livermore Valley Harvest Fest each September shows off 36 of the wineries in the Livermore Valley, which is due east about 50 miles from San Francisco, California -- it's relatively unknown to the millions of Wine Country visitors, who head up to the overcrowded and overpriced Napa Valley north of here, but the locals know and love it. In fact, Livermore Valley is site of the oldest winemaking vines in California. They are strong in Zinfandel, but also grow a wide variety of other grapes -- prices are reasonable, the wines often delicious, the area uncrowded, the wineries happy to see you. And it's a lot closer to the San Francisco East Bay area than Napa or Sonoma.

To give you the flavor, here's my report on my visit in September 2007. If you get a chance this coming fall, definitely try to find the chance to go! Visit

How It Works: There are 35 wineries participating - 35! You can't hit them all. You can't even drive among them without hitting something! So buy your ticket early, park at the main parking lot in Livermore (or take BART and the shuttle), then shuttle busses take you along the four or five routes to the various wineries. Your biggest problem will be deciding which route to take - I usually pick at random because they're all good. It's actually easier to take than the fabulous ZAP because the delays while you wait for the next shuttle let your body adjust to the last round.

There are tastings and munchies at each winery and often music and trinkets for sale. Most wineries also offer, for an extra five bucks or so, to let you try their SPecial Stuff in the barn in the back -- and invite you to buy wine or to buy futures. I've bought futures and been *very* happy with my selection. But you can have quite an afternoon just drinking the stuff up front without paying extra.

Some years it is very hot in the Valley; last year it was quite pleasant. No way to tell.

Anne-Marie and Rodney St.John-Brookes and I drove out to Livermore (California) for the annual Harvest Festival Sunday, and had a great time! It was hotter than hell -- nearly 100 -- but under shade there was a nice breeze that cooled everything just right.

We got to PageMill Winery, a new one transplanted from the SF Peninsula. Somebody we know from our BAWDY winetasting group was supposed to be a volunteer there but we couldn't find them. The PageMill wines don't do much for me. Sorry!

We were then supposed to visit Red Skye, one of wineries we tasted in the earliest days of the BAWDY group, with very good wines; but the winery was in a complex of several wineries that was so overwhelmingly crowded with cars that we couldn't find parking. There were only a few wineires like that -- the best-known names, like Wente; my advice is to use this kind of festival as a chance to visit wineries you *haven't* heard of. Livermore Valley is open most of the time, you can visit Concannon and the like any time you want.

We went to Retzlaff first; a few years ago I got talked into buying a mixed case of reds on futures at this festival, and boy did that turn out to be a good move. The Cabs, Merlots, and Cab-Merlot blends I got in that case tasted good, then every few months I'd open another bottle and it was noticeable better than before -- a little aging was treating the Retzlaff very well! I am down to two bottles and almost afraid to open them! So I again bought a case of futures, which at $312 isn't overpriced, and will pick it up in January when it's bottled.

We stopped by Fenestra to see how their True Red was tasting. True Red is a blend I discovered a decade ago. They call them "Lot X" where X is a number that increments each year. I had started with Lot 9 back then, and really liked it (and it's cheap -- under ten bucks). I discovered in this visit that up until Lot 11, the True Reds were a Zin-based blend (with Grenache, for one); after Lot 11, they switched to a fully Rhone-style blend. Zins aren't blended often, and I had really liked the old True Reds. But now the Rhone-styles I like OK, but not nearly as much.

We also visited two smaller vintners, Rios-Lovell and Cedar Mountain, both of which have lovely tasting rooms. Rodney liked Cedar Mountain's Sangiovese and Barbero; he wants to host a tasting of Sangioveses and Barberos and of course I encouraged him.

We then drove all the way out to Westover, out in the Hayward hills, because Anne-Marie and Rodney had never been up there, even though it's behind their house in the Hayward Hills,, on Palomares Road. At Westover's very nice facility, someone named Chambier Bechtel (!), Dir of Dev and Design for Tres Classique Specialty Foods of Sonoma, was selling the most amazingly delicious flavored olive oils and vinegars you have ever tasted! I bought four bottles -- and broke two of them putting them in my car. Sigh. Westover's wines were fine; they are most famous for bottling 20 different kinds of ports and dessert wines, probably more than anyone in California.

We then visited Chouinard, next door, where Rodney and I each bought a mixed case of reds (Alicante Bouchet, Zin, and red table wine) that was, well, ok, but mainly because it was at clearance sale prices. And I bought a case of surprisingly good Viognier, also on deep discount -- a steal at $4 a bottle. They also have a truly wonderful Chenin Blanc, as good as any American Chenin Blanc I've ever tasted. They also have an improbably mild and tasty Green-Apple wine(!). Their Gewurtz was good, and they actually have an "Ice Viognier" -- they cheat by putting the grapes in a freezer, because it simply doesn't get cold enough in California -- that, like a typical ice wine, was sweet and tasty and tangy.

But we ran out of time and steam before hitting all the others of the 36 wineries displaying their wares. Too Many Wineries/Not Enough Time! or Liver!

Next year, we promised, we'd keep track of what we saw so we can work our way through the rest of the list. Or maybe we'll just drive over to Livermore from time to time on our own - it's only, like, 30 minutes away!

All I Know About South African Wines – by Mac McCarthy

Which isn’t much, but here’s a little background. SA makes a wide range of wines but has only begun professionalizing and exporting in the last 10-15 years. They are best known for Shiraz, Southern Rhone-style Mouvedre blends, and the Pinotage grape, where they are a leader in this tiny segment. Prices range from pretty cheap – under $10 – to pretty pricey – the best stuff is $35 to $50. We have a range represented here. The only thing I know about the regions is that Stellenbosch is their Napa.

My tasting group BAWDY (Bay Area Wine Drinkers-and-a-Y, in the San Francisco area) tasted these wines in late 2006. More recent versions of each of these wines should be readilyi available at your local Beverages and More in the U.S.

1. Sauvignon Blanc Blend – NEDERBURG “LYRIC”, Saug Blanc 60%, Chenin Blanc 21%, Chard 19%, Paarl region, 11.5%, $13.
A pretty if unusual blend of whites. Turned out to be an interesting, full-bodied white.

2. Shiraz - FAIRVIEW JakkalsFontein region 2002 14.5% $35 discounted to $24
Wow; seems like a lot for a Shiraz, doesn’t it? But that’s okay – they knocked it down to only 3x what an Australian shiraz would cost. Is it worth the markup? You be the judge! It was good, but probably not $24 good….IMHO

3. Cabernet Sauvignon – LONG NECK, Western Cape Region, 2003, 14.0%, $7!
Seven bucks?? Definitely worth it. Full and round.

4. Southern Rhone Style – THE WOLFTRAP, Cape of Good Hope, Syrah 65%, Cinsault 19%, Mourvedre 11%, Viognier 3$, 14.0%, $10 – 91 points/Wong.
It’s only ten bucks, but BevMo buyer Wong gives it 91 points – jeez! Syrah-Mourvedre-Grenache is the basic Rhone starting point; this substitutes Cinsault for Grenache, and adds Viognier, a white, for aroma. We split on these two Rhones – half liked the Wolftrap, the other half liked the Goats DR, below! I liked the Wolftrap best, but I don’t think either of these had the classic Southern Rhone aromas and flavors, not fully, anyway…

5. Southern Rhone Style – 'GOATS DO ROAM – in Villages,' Paar. 2004 14.5% $11
Blend not given, but the pun on “Cotes du Rhone” suggests a Grenache-Syrah-Mouvedre (GSM) blend. Goats do Roam is a joke name, but this export brand sells a lot of Rhone-style blends in the US at low prices. Let’s see what it tastes like, especially compared to the equally inexpensive but highly rated Wolftrap.

6. Pinotage – LANZERAC, Stellanbosch Pinotage 2002 13.5% $25
Pinotage, not to be confused with Meritage in California, is a distinct French grape which has never gone anywhere, but some California and even more South African winemakers have been experimenting, convinced it can make a well-built wine. Let’s see if they’ve broken the code! Pinotages are pricey, though! This was nice!

7. Bordeaux Blend – UMKHULU -- “The Big One” – “Tian” blend, 2001, Stellenbosch, Cab 67%, Merlot 15%, Cab Franc 11%, Malbec 7%. Vino Venue approx $30.
Serious stuff, at serious prices; Umkhulu is Swahili for “The Big One,” and I don’t know what "Tian" means. Big indeed! This could easily have aged a year or three!

The Charles Shaw "Two-Buck Chuck" 2003 California Merlot is ready to drink!

The Charles Shaw "Two-Buck Chuck" 2003 California Merlot is ready to drink!

I just cracked open a bottle from my case of Charles Shaw 03 Merlot and am here to tell you that it's *ready*, baby!

The wine is mild, with a nice fruit. There's a hint of green to it, which I don't like, but it's very drinkable. If you put away a case of this cheap stuff back then, now's the time to break it out -- and I'm guessing from how it's tasting now that it won't last much longer.

Background: Like many of you, I've tipped a few glasses of the notorious $2 Buck Chuck (it's even made it into Wikipedia), a line of wines that sell at the Trader Joe's grocery chain for $1.99 the bottle -- and at $24 the case (12 bottles) that's one tempting opportunity.The brand became famous (and even infamous, as this entry in's Urban Legends page testifies) for its initial run of cheap but very tasty Chardonnays. They quickly followed with Cabs and Merlots, same price.

They weren't bad -- certainly they didn't taste like wines retailing for under two dollars. They tasted like $10 wines, or $20 wines, or even $30 wines, depending on which case you bought in which month.

Which, it turns out, was the trick. The source of this cheap wine was leftovers from growers and vintners and winemakers who were stuck with excess supply back in the 2002 period. Rather than dump it, they sold it to this firm for literally pennies on the dollar.

So the basic wine/grapes/juice was decent stuff -- rumor had it that some of it was very decent indeed -- supposedly some juice that had been going into $30 bottles was fire-saled off to this company.

At $2 a bottle retail, they couldn't have been paying much for the wine, that's for sure. It's hard to sell empty bottles at that price and make a profit.

So a visit to Trader Joe's could turn up a darn good bottle of wine for a ridiculous price. Problem is, there hasn't been much consistency from batch to batch, because the company was picking up its wine from whereever it could get it. The source varied from month to month -- or from one week's shipment to Trader Joe's to the next week's shipment. That's why the Charles Shaw bottles are always so vague about the wine: "California Merlot" isn't very specific; it could be Napa one week, Sonoma another, Lodi the following week.

That's not a bad thing -- the wines might be decent in each case -- but it has made it hard to get a case of what you especially like. You buy a bottle, a few weeks later you open and taste it -- Bingo! It's great! You rush back to Trader Joe's to buy a case for $24, you open the next bottle and -- it's not as tasty as you expected. Different juice, that's why.

So ensues the famous "Trader Joe Shuffle": Buy a test bottle one day, drink it *that same night!*, and if you like it, go back to Trader Joe's the next morning -- EARLY! -- and buy the case -- while it's still the same wine! and before the next shipment arrives!

The case of Charles Shaw 03 Merlot I bought a couple of years ago turned out to be a bit on the harsh side, so I left it under the house for a while. Last year I tried a bottle and it was still too tangy to suit me. But late in 2007 I opened another bottle -- and Lo! it had mellowed!This is a reasonably mouth-filling wine with nice fruit, easy to drink with a meal or just while watching TV.

So if you got a case of this particular item Back When, or know somebody who did -- OPEN IT NOW!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Noble Rot: A Bordeaux Wine Revolution: Book Review

A stench wafts among the pricey vineyards of Bordeaux. According to Noble Rot by William Echikson, the stink comes from a cultural gangrene eating away at an arrogant and outmoded aristocracy so far into denial that it can’t see the mortal danger that corrodes it from within.

In the wine world, the term "noble rot" refers to a specific type of desirable mold that allows grapes to produce some of the world's most desirable and expensive sweet wines with Bordeaux's Château d'Yquem at the pinnacle. But Echikson uses the term as a metaphor for a syndrome of cultural and enological afflictions that have turned this august wine region on its Gallic nose. The fact that Château d'Yquem plays a key role makes the metaphor doubly relevant.

The obscure and irrelevant Classification of 1855 stars as the lead pathogen in Noble Rot. As Echikson points out, the old guard in Bordeaux still clutch at the 1855 classification in a last-ditch effort to sell inferior wine at very high prices to gullible snobs who crave tony labels. Indeed, this 1855 list was never about quality from the beginning, but about price and prestige. Not coincidentally for this book, Château d'Yquem came out on the very top of that listing.

Leading the revolution against the established order are les garagistes, a feisty band of winemakers, mostly from St.-Emilion and environs who, zut alors!, think that Bordeaux's over-priced, thin, musty swill should give way to quality wine produced through proper vineyard management and winemaking techniques. While there are some larger, well-financed operations in this movement, most have been labeled garagistes after a number of prominent winemakers who literally began in their garages and produced wines that sell at hundreds of dollars a bottle at retail.

The fact that many unclassified garagiste wines are now selling at far greater prices than those with a noble, classified château on the label has outraged the establishment which, in Marie Antoinette fashion, scream, "Let them drink plonk!"

Echikson gives the reader a very readable, enjoyable sand factually grounded account of how the upstart garagistes first tried to change the ossified classifications which stood like the Maginot Line between them, formal recognition and the establishment's pricing and sales system. When that failed, they simply swept around the flanks, establishing alternate pricing, sales and distribution channels that cut the old guard off like la guillotine.

Noble Rot could easily have been like most wine books: morphine for the soul, filled with geek-speak, pedantically self-important and impenetrable prose suitable only for treating people with a sleep disorder. Yet Echikson avoids this and has produced an accessible, thoughtful book so filled with interesting material about the business, the winemaking and the culture that it begs to be sipped and contemplated rather than quaffed.

What makes the book so engaging is the way that Echikson spins his story by following some of the key people on both sides of the movement, leading us through the conflicts, offering context and illuminating quotes that promote understanding.

We have the challengers: true garagistes such as Michel Gracia and well-heeled newcomers like Florence Cathiard of Château Smith-Haut-Lafite who are bound by a passion for great wine regardless of classification. On their side are avant garde merchants like Jeffrey Davies, modern wine consultants like Michel Rolland and Denis Dubourdieu and well-known wine critic Robert Parker.

The old guard sees evil in the fact that Davies and Parker are American as are many of the new vineyard and winemaking practices is evidence, according to the old guard, that this was "part of a grand conspiracy to destroy France."

Echikson aptly shows that the French don't seem to need any outside help to destroy their country since government regulations, a refusal to modernize, a pervasive rear-view mirror on progress and a general xenophobia are doing a great job without American intervention.

Noble Rot uses this attitude as one of the major manifestations of denial that keeps the decadent aristocracy from addressing the real issues, which is why American wine regularly out-scores French wine in France and that top global honors for that icon of French culture, the baguette, has gone to one of my local Sonoma bakeries on more than one occasion.

Commanding the defense of the old order is Château d'Yquem's Alexandre Lur-Saluces. Noble Rot details his decades of subterfuge, double-dealing, and attempts to cheat family members out of their rightful ownership and control of Château d'Yquem all the while running the place into the ground. The tale, told through a combination of interviews and extracts from court cases paints a gothic image that would never have been believable even on Falconcrest.

The old guard cast would not be complete without the context that most of Bordeaux's old guard were Vichy supporters and Nazi collaborators who received many a fascist pat on the back for shipping Jews off to the gas chambers, something that grand cru lovers might want to keep in mind.

Noble Rot begins with many threads which Echikson skillfully weaves together in the last part of the book to form a unified, disturbing and yet optimistic tapestry. As the author of wine books, I have visited Bordeaux on a number of occasions and met many of the people Echikson writes about. I found that after reading Noble Rot, I had a far more coherent framework on which to hang my episodic visits and knowledge.

By Lewis Perdue

California Vintners Still Delusional

When Lewis Perdue's book, The Wrath of Grapes hit bookstores in 1999, he predicted a massive glut of wine would sweep through California and hammer wine prices starting in 2000/2001.

The wine industry responded like like stoners who've been smoking their shorts. "Glut? Ain't gonna be no stinkin' glut!"

Jay Palmer at Barron's wrote a detailed, well-documented article on this and came to the same conclusion. The wine industry mounted a massive PR blitz aimed at neutralizing Palmer, Perdue and anyone else who dared look at the statistics. Brokerage analysts played their puppet roles well, mouthing corporate press releases and failing to look at the facts.

They were all treading water or floundering when the predicted glut hit in 2001. Right on schedule.

And every year, year after year, they pronounce the end of the glut. Only, no one ever uses the "G" word.

This year is no different.

Premier Pacific Vineyards, a Napa-based vineyard investment firm issued a rose-tinted report this week taking about the decline in "non-bearing" vineyard plantings and implying that, somehow, this was yet another harbinger of good times ahead and even hinting at shortages.

Bull feathers!

It's true that non-bearing acreage can help foretell future prospects. It takes a newly planted vineyard three to five years to begin production. But if you're savvy and take your own look at the stats, you'll see that the numbers reported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture don't show the flood of California wine ending anytime soon. It just shows that the insane rush to plant new vineyards has decreased from delusional to merely out of touch with reality.

The USDA's 2007 Grape Acreage Report indicates that non-bearing acres decreased from 47,000 acres to 43,000 acres. WhoopieDOOO! Sure, you can talk about a, 8.5 percent decline. But the REAL story lies in the acres still producing enough wine to keep the Two Buck Chuck tsunami flowing.

The last time that California wine production came close to a balance with demand was 1995-96 when the state had about 300,000 acres of bearing wine grapes. Feloniously optimistic projections about demand from pump-and-dump artists and those standing to profit from the expansion of vineyards created a planting spree.

The 2007 Grape Acreage Report shows California with 480,000 acres, the same as 2006. This comes despite vineyards being ripped out and grapes rotting on the vines, even in premium areas of Napa and Sonoma Valley.

The reality remains that California has, probably, two-thirds-MORE acres of wine vineyards than it needs, a good portent for regular wine consumers needing something to ease the pain of oil and real-estate prices.

More factors aggravate the situation for vineyard owners, the most important being a worldwide glut of wine which has helped boost the market share of imports from about 12 to 15% in the mid-1990s to about double that today.

Significantly, California crushed about 3.7 million tons of wine grapes in 2007, according to the USDA. At the current levels of consumption and imports, that's probably 750,000 tons higher than supply and demand would merit.

Wines wizards of unreality will respond that those overall numbers don't really apply to the haute-appellation wines of Napa and Sonoma. More bullfeathers!

This wine, Castello Da Vinci, is a negociant bottle, filled with a Bordeaux blend from Napa Valley's trendiest appellations. The highly, highly respected winery that made the wine sold it for more than $100 per bottle. But they had 30,000 gallons of it they couldn't sell. So it was shopped on the bulk market for about. Some of it ended up in the Castello Da Vinci bottle and sold for $25. About $5 of that went for wine. Another $3 for the label, bottle and all other costs.

Napa is not immune no matter how must they protest.

DISCLOSURE: Castello Da Vinci is Lewis Perdue's own wine, created by for a character in my current novel, Perfect Killer. Sourcing the wine on the bulk market confirmed everything I had known anecdotally about prices and the availability of very fine wines.