Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Fair Shake, That's All The Mexicans Ask

I used to think that the Sierra foothills, the Delta and Lodi had a tough time earning respectability as epicenters of fine wine. Then I began to visit Mexico's principal wine region, Valle de Guadalupe just outside of Ensenada, along the west coast of Baja California south of San Diego.

The vintners of Valle de Guadalupe face more obstacles than most appellations in getting recognition for their wines. The region is remote and ragged. It's in Mexico, broadly seen as too hot and arid to grow wine grapes. It's in a culture where all sorts of other beverages, from margaritas to fruit smoothies, get first call at fiesta and dinner. While Valle de Guadalupe and a few smaller nearby appellations yield around 200 wines each harvest, most of them are made in small lots, too tiny to draw the interest of distributors. And lately wine tourism in the area has virtually dried up as wine enthusiasts from southern California postpone treks in the wake of brutal drug-related violence about border cities.

With more confidence and patience than frustration and anger, however, Antonio Luis Escalante Dominguez, shown here signing bottles of his wines during a tasting at the southern reaches of Baja the other day, talked of these barriers he and his fellow Valle de Guadalupe vintners are up against as they try to establish eminence on the world wine stage. He and his pal Rogelio Sanchez del Palacio started to make home wine in 1987, went commercial in 2001, and established their winery Roganto at Ensenada in 2006.

Today, their wines speak of the Valle de Guadalupe and other valleys about Ensenada with lush textures, mouth-filling fruit, and the sweet, smoky and spicy overlay of new toasted oak, most of it French and American, some of it Hungarian and Russian. Among their current releases, the aromatic and off-dry Roganto 2008 San Vicente Sauvignon Blanc is the zestiest and cleanest interpretation of the varietal I've found from Baja California; the Roganto 2007 Tramonte, a 50/50 blend of cabernet sauvignon and tempranillo from three valleys near Ensenada, is a fresh, forward, spicy and sharp multi-dimensional delight; and the Roganto Cosecha Tardia 33, a rare late-harvest cabernet sauvignon, is inky in color, a veritable furniture showroom in smell (wicker, leather, mahogany) and so sweet I began to look around for the chocolate flan.

Antonio Luis Escalante Dominguez has just one request of anyone curious about Mexican wine: Roll one into a blind tasting and see what happens. He likes to tell of an aspiring wine steward who while attending sommelier classes in Vancouver took along a bottle of Roganto's 2003 cabernet sauvignon. Not without hesitation, he added it to the lineup for a blind tasting that also included cabernet sauvignons from such Napa Valley heavyweights as Far Niente and Duckhorn. Of the five wines in the tasting, the Roganto was voted the best by 11 of the 15 students, says Dominguez.

"Most people are surprised by our wines. They don't believe they are made in Mexico," Dominguez says. "We are a very small region in terms of quantity, but we do have quality." All he's asking is that Mexican wines get a fair shake. But to find them for blind tasting is likely going to require a trip to Ensenada and Valle de Guadalupe; few make it north of the border.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Again, It's Supply and Demand

While I haven't read "The Wine Trials 2010," and have only a hazy understanding of its most provocative premise - that everyday wine drinkers tend not to prefer expensive wines over cheaper wines in tastings where they don't know the identity of the wines - I am enjoying the debates the book is stimulating.

The most current is at Freakonomics, a member of the New York Times family of blogs. Here, blogger Robin Goldstein, co-author of "The Wine Trials 2010," attempts to clarify the book's principles. I think I better understand his methodology and reasoning, as well as his answer to the question on which he hung his posting - when are high wine prices justified? Overall, however, I agree with readers who in the comments added to the post argue that the market, however complex its gyrations, simply and ultimately sets a wine's price, which may or may not have any bearing to a wine's inherent and aesthetic worth.

Be sure to read those reader comments, especially the remarks of California winemaker Sean Thackery, No. 40 in the list.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

From Tea Party To Wine Party

When former Alaska governor and former vice-president nominee Sarah Palin addressed a national Tea Party gathering earlier this month, she invoked the name of the late President Ronald Reagan, as sentimental conservatives are wont to do. "Happy birthday, Ronald Reagan," she beamed early on.

When she addresses the annual convention of the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America Inc. in Las Vegas on April 6, will she wish "happy birthday" to an even more influential player on the world scene - Jesus? According to some theologians, April 6, not Dec. 25, is the actual date Jesus was born. But the thought that Palin would give a shout-out to Jesus in front of a collection of liquor dealers in Vegas is too heretical to consider seriously.

But what will she say? Will her talk be more boilerplate railing against elitism, the liberal left and the alleged ineptitude of the Obama administration, or will she actually talk common-sense solutions, bedrock conservativism and individual freedom, her other frequent themes? If she dwells on the latter three themes she'll do so in front of a group that, ironically, has a sorry record on their behalf.

The Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America Inc. is an outgrowth of the 21st amendment to the Constitution of the United States. That's the amendment that repealed Prohibition. It also laid the foundation for the three-tier system of wine and spirits distribution in the U.S. This scheme requires a third party - the wholesaler - to handle distribution of alcoholic beverages between producers and retailers. The government, in effect, gave wholesalers the key to the cellar door, and they've been reluctant to share it with others ever since, especially in recent years, as wineries turned to direct shipping of their releases to consumers as a way to build audience, remain solvent and embrace freedom. That would seem to be the American way, emphasizing competitiveness and liberty, but the wholesalers don't look upon the three-tier system as an irrelevant relic of Prohibition, but as their justification to continue to make big bucks under the pretense of preserving state rights.

Her appearance before the group, therefore, gives Palin a high-profile platform on which to declare her independence from such potent lobbyist groups as the wholesalers. How she does it will be dicey, but I'm here to help:

"Thank you, thank you, thank you. Isn't it wonderful to be in Nevada, the silver state? Too bad you didn't get the gold, but every four years there's another chance. I know.

"Nevada, home of the Rebels. I like that. I bet Nevada is receptive to rogues, too. And just look at that pirate ship over at Treasure Island!

"Wow, the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers, what a great bunch of guys, going to work every day, supporting their families, digging out of all that snow in Washington, D.C. Congratulations!

"You know, I have to confess that Todd and I don't drink much wine or spirits. We just never seem to agree on whether to have a cabernet sauvignon or a zinfandel with our moose stew, so we stick to soda. I'm not Thomas Jefferson, you know.

"But our family does appreciate your hard work. You employ thousands of truck drivers and sales people and clerks. You bring a measure of happiness to countless American families every day. You support good works in your communities.

"When members of the leftist media establishment wondered why I'd speak to such an obstructionist and litigous group, they just assumed it was because of the $75,000 or $100,000 or whatever it is I'm getting paid - the ink on my palm got smudged - but I can tell you that has nothing to do with why I'm here today.

"It's the pirate ship! Just kidding. I do have a serious message to deliver.

"I'm here to speak up on behalf of the family farmer. That's what most vintners are. They work the soil, grow a crop, harvest it and send it to market. That's the way it's been since the nation's founding. If you're going to believe in common-sense conservative principles as strongly as I do, you've got to get out of the way of that farmer heading to market. Think of the guy and the gal making wine as the original Scott Brown - people with a pick-up and a passion. As I've said before, competition makes us work harder and be more efficient and produce more. So get out of the courts, get out of the state legislatures, get out of the business of building roadblocks, and mostly just get out of the way of those guys and gals in their trucks.

"I know, I know, your whole intent is to protect the interests of the wholesalers and the brokers of wine and spirits, not the strength of the family farm. But this is a time for some tough action. It's not business as usual in America. The American public is agitated and angry. Americans are looking for real solutions, not a bunch more talk in the courts and legislatures. I'm asking you to do your part for the good of the country.

"No, I'm not suggesting you quit. I'm asking that you find a way to better represent those smaller wineries. Use as much imagination and industry getting their wines on shelves and wine lists as you do for those big factory wineries. And if that doesn't work out, well, I hear the Obama administration is hiring a whole bunch of former lobbyists. Ha, just kidding!"

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Red Bicyclette's Flat Tire

So, a French company found guilty of selling 16 million bottles of fake pinot noir to E&J Gallo Winery of Modesto is fined 180,000 euros for perpetuating the fraud, which netted the firm 7 million euros in profits. That slap-on-the-wrist fine doesn't seem like much of a deterrent to keep this sort of scam from happening again.

In the meantime, however, perhaps officials of Gallo and other California wine corporations that are importing shiploads of European juice for American consumers are directing their staffs to refresh their palates about what pinot noir and other varietals are supposed to taste like. Gallo authorities apparently didn't have a clue as to what was going on, which was uncovered by French customs authorities. Perhaps on their lunch break.

According to a concise statement released today, chagrined Gallo officials say they are "deeply disappointed" that their French supplier, Sieur d'Arques, had misrepresented juice from lesser grapes as noble pinot noir as recently as March 2008. They also say they bought less than 20 percent of the fraudulent pinot noir involved in the case and that none of it continues to be sold to their customers.

"We believe that the only French pinot noir that was potentially misrepresented to us would have been the 2006 vintage and prior," says the statement. "Potentially misrepresented?" Did they miss the part about the guilty verdict?

At any rate, the wine was bottled under Gallo's Red Bicyclette brand, though the statement doesn't acknowledge that. "Red Bicyclette wines reflect the warmth and charm of the Southern French countryside," the winery's Web site continues to proclaim. Well, maybe they're rethinking that.

And you have to love the cheek of the French attorney representing Sieur d'Arques: "Not a single American consumer complained." For a more complete report on the proceedings, check out this BBC report.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Napa Valley Pilgrims Take On Mexico

Sisters Sophie Esser and Julia Esser, daughters of Napa Valley vintner Manfred Esser, came to the far southern reaches of Baja California this afternoon to help establish a beachhead for California wine.

They ambled about the deck of Container Restaurant & Bar, pouring tastes of Esser Vineyards wines for restaurateurs from the twin resort communities of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo. In its earlier life, Container Restaurant & Bar was a shipping container, capable of holding more than 1,000 cases of wine. The Esser sisters would love to have sold that much wine, and maybe they did. The curious restaurateurs had encouraging things to say of the Esser lineup.

The old shipping container, freshly spiffed up, now sits on a verdant shelf just above a new marina on the northeast edge of San Jose del Cabo. It overlooks a flotilla of moored luxury yachts bearing addresses from Jackson Hole, Honolulu, Las Vegas, San Diego, Dallas, Cheyenne and Redlands, among other distant ports.

Esser wines run to dry and lean mainstream varietals. While the winery is in Napa Valley, the wines bear California appellations. They are made from grapes grown in the North State's less pricey districts, such as Monterey and Lake counties, Clarksburg and Lodi. In California, they sell for around $10.

"This is a great opportunity," said Sophie Esser in explaining the family's attraction to Los Cabos. "We think Americans want to drink California wines, and so many Californians are down here."

And their seasonal presence is on the rise, especially as spring break draws near. If you are packing for your own escape to Los Cabos, brace yourself to pay highly inflated prices if all you drink is California wine. At a San Jose del Cabo supermarket the other day, the entry-level Kendall-Jackson merlot, which carries a suggested retail price of $18 in California, was listed at 389 pesos, or $30 in U.S. currency at today's exchange rate. This helps explain why so few California wines are available in Baja, and why Argentina, Chile and Spain dominate the area's wine market.

Ivan Silberman, the Los Cabos wine distributor who arranged the Esser introduction, explained why California wines are so dear in Los Cabos. The cost of shipping factors into the equation, of course, but the main culprit is Mexican taxes. They include a 25 percent levy on California wines containing up to 14 percent alcohol, 30 percent on wines with more than 14 percent alcohol. And then there's an 11 percent tax imposed by the state of Baja California Sur. And for the past year, Mexican officials have imposed an additional 20 percent tariff on California wine in retaliation for an Obama administration decision to halt a pilot program that was allowing Mexican trucks to haul goods on U.S. highways in border states. It's a small wonder that Kendall-Jackson merlot doesn't cost more.

If Sophie Esser and Julia Esser were startled by the load of taxes their wines will have to shoulder to get into the hands of wine enthusiasts in Los Cabos, they didn't show it. They went about their pouring and smoozing confident that their wines would find a place at Los Cabos restaurants and resorts, especially in the niche for which their releases are crafted -wine-by-the-glass programs. They've had plenty of experience in cultivating other foreign markets, noting that Esser wines are poured at such posh retreats as the Ritz-Carlton in the Cayman Islands, Half Moon Bay, Atlanta and Chicago, The Fullerton Hotel in Singapore, the Raffles Resort in the West Indies, the Four Seasons in Shanghai, and the Burj al Arab in Dubai. They've already nailed down The One & Only Palmilla Resort at San Jose del Cabo, and are keeping their fingers crossed that Mexico's onerous taxes don't deter other restaurants and resorts from adding Esser to their cellar.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Just Try To Slake That Thirst, My Friends

I'll miss Sacramento Beer Week, coming up Feb. 22-28. But only because I'll be in Mexico, trying to figure out why one of the country's more reliable beers, Dos Equis, seems to have disappeared magically. Pacifico, Corona, Modelo, Sol are all over the place, but Dos Equis is mysteriously elusive.

But it won't be Dos Equis I'll miss at Sacramento Beer Week. It will be the more-or-less formal return to the Sacramento beer scene of Peter Hoey, the acclaimed brewmaster for Sacramento Brewing Co., which closed last fall after a nearly 15-year run.

Since then, Hoey has been laying the foundation for his own brewery, Odonata Beer Company, which he hopes to build eventually in midtown Sacramento. In the meantime, he's been busy brewing beers for his label at Sudwerk in Davis. He's rolling out five of them, each so idiosyncratic and cutting-edge I don't expect to find anything similar in Mexico. There's Rorie's Ale, a quadruple-style Belgian ale aged in Port barrels with tart cherries, to be available at the restaurant Grange during Sacramento Beer Week; Water Witch, a strong dark Belgian-style ale aged in malbec barrels, available at several locations about Sacramento, including Old Soul at Weatherstone in midtown and Samuel Horne's Tavern in Folsom; Rosa, a fruity sour ale aged in white-wine barrels, with very limited availability; Beersel, similar to Rosa but more "funky," says Hoey, but it is currently sold out; and Saison, a "rustic farmhouse-style" ale to be available by bottle in April, and to be stocked by Old Soul at Weatherstone, Nugget Markets, Extreme Pizza and Corti Brothers.

Hoey's Water Witch, incidentally, is to be poured at several events during Sacramento Beer Week, including a tasting at Pangaea Cafe in Sacramento and a dinner at Chef's Table in Rocklin. For a full schedule of Beer Week activities, visit the event's Web site.

Dos Equis, incidentally, has a Web site so entertaining you really don't need a beer to help enjoy it.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Introducing: Albeno Munari

Here's an update on yesterday's posting concerning changes involving the iconic Calaveras County winery Stevenot: Brothers David and Jon Oliveto of Oliveto Distributing Inc. in Sutter Creek have bought the Stevenot brand, the winery's secondary tasting room in Murphys, and its club and inventory.

Al Munari of the Paso Robles family that bought Stevenot Winery in 2006 said today that the Munaris will retain the original facility and 161 adjoining acres (including 25 acres in vineyards), which henceforth will bear the name of his grandfather who immigrated to the United States from Italy in 1916 - Albeno Munari. Those wines, which began to roll out yesterday, include such varietals as cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, pinot noir and barbera.

Neither Munari nor the Olivetos are disclosing financial terms of the arrangement, though Munari acknowledged that the family sold the Stevenot name to facilitate its "financial stability" as it copes with foreclosure and bankruptcy issues. The outlook for the family to remain active on the Calaveras County wine scene is "positive," he says, anticipating annual production to settle in at around 6,000 cases. The Munaris are retaining the Red Rover brand it introduced after buying Stevenot and already is starting to build a new wine club for the Albeno Munari label, says Munari. Their tasting room at the winery remains open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.

Kevin Barnett, marketing director for the new era of Stevenot wines, says some of the wines acquired by the Olivetos in the deal were made by Chuck Hovey, the winery's former longtime winemaker, who the brothers have brought back aboard. Hovey is working on a new sparkling wine and a merlot, the latter expected to be released this summer as the first wine under the new regime, says Barnett. For at least the time being, the Stevenot label will remain unchanged in design.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

More Variety In The Vineyards Than Ever?

For decades, wine writers have lamented the disappearance or at least the endangerment of grape varieties that have fallen out of favor among growers and consumers alike. Their pain has intensified in recent years as just a few varieties - cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, merlot - have grown tremendously in popularity, often at the expense of varieties not as financially rewarding to farmers and vintners. At least, that's the prevailing perception.

Cory Cartwright of the wine blog Saignee is the latest commentator to weigh in on this issue. In this essay he argues that classic varieties are being marginalized and that biodiversity is being sacrificed by the rush to plant grapes that yield varietals that appeal to a global market that prefers safe standardized wines over releases that speak more of tradition and site.

His piece coincides with the release of a report on this past fall's grape harvest in California, referenced in an earlier post below. While that report again shows substantial growth in the crush of such mainstream varieties as cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and merlot, it also shows that the state's vineyards may be more diverse than ever. It lists 44 white-wine varieties and 73 red-wine varieties being grown about California. Several of them apparently had never before been listed, including gamay noir au jus blanc, gruner veltliner, ciliegiolo, albarino and something called fer servadou, a variety I'd never heard of. Their appearance doesn't necessarily mean that they were planted just within the past few years, but that their yield has grown so significantly that state and federal authorities are taking notice. And in that, wine consumers who relish the exploration of new varieties and new settings can find hope of any even more varied tomorrow.

Cartwright, incidentally, laments the tearing out of old-growth carignane in California while noting that the variety now is highly prized by a new generation of growers and winemakers. Apparently so. According to the crush report, 15,461 tons of carignane were processed this past harvest, up from 11,281 tons the year before.

A Revered Name Is Getting Polished

"Stevenot," a storied name in the modern development of winemaking along the Sierra foothills, is getting an infusion of both new and old blood.

Brothers David and Jon Oliveto of Oliveto Distributing Inc. of Sutter Creek in Amador County have bought the Stevenot brand and the winery's secondary tasting room along Main Street in Murphys. They also are bringing back into the Stevenot fold Chuck Hovey, who had been Stevenot's winemaker for 24 years before leaving in 2007 to consult for other Mother Lode wineries and to establish his own eponymous label.

Hovey left Stevenot about two years after the winery's founder, Barden Stevenot, sold the property to the Jack Munari family of Paso Robles. The sale of the Stevenot label to the Olivetos doesn't include winery facilities on the old Stevenot ranch outside Murphys, the future of which is uncertain. Currently, the Munaris are caught up in foreclosure and bankruptcy proceedings stemming from their venture into Northern California winemaking. Neither the Olivetos nor the Munaris have responded to questions about the future of the winery.

Hovey, however, says the new Stevenot wines will be made at Gianelli Vineyards outside Jamestown in Tuolumne County. "We will continue to use local grapes and in most cases fruit from the same vineyards as in the past," says Hovey.

In a press release, David Oliveto indicates that the brothers plan to push the Stevenot brand aggressively rather than play a caretaker role. "Stevenot has always been a quality brand, well known in the community, and has always sold very well," he says.

The brothers, Jackson natives, are the sons of Ross Oliveto, who established a milk-distribution business in the foothills in the late 1960s. He gradually transitioned into distributing beer and wine, representing Stevenot since the early 1980s. Barden Stevenot, the first of Calaveras County's contemporary vintners, began to plant grapes in 1973 and started to release wines in 1978.

Lees Is More

Members of the California wine trade are busy these days reading the grape leaves from this past fall's harvest. That would be the Preliminary Grape Crush Report for 2009 issued by the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

It provides all sorts of impressive statistics: Nearly 3.7 million tons of wine grapes were crushed, up 682,000 tons over the previous year and just 63,000 tons shy of the record high in 2005. Red-wine tonnage jumped 24 percent over 2008, white-wine tonnage 21 percent. The average price per ton was $601.44, down 2 percent from the previous year, though up slightly for red-wine grapes to about $649 per ton, while the cost of white-wine fruit slipped a bit to nearly $538.

For consumers, this increased production and lower costs for vintners should translate into less costly wine in a year or two, but that remains to be seen, given that the old economic principle of supply-and-demand also could have been knocked askew by today's volatile market.

Some of the report's more provocative food for thought is to be found in the reams of fine print that follow the summary. Growers look as if they are banking on chardonnay remaining California's favorite wine; more chardonnay was crushed than any other variety, accounting for 726,008 tons, up a staggering 160,000 tons over the previous year. And despite all the dissing merlot has received in recent years, plantings continue to expand, or at least hold steady, indicate the figures; 326,134 tons of merlot were crushed, up more than 100,000 tons over 2008.

The report raises at least one question worth pondering: Why is so much zinfandel priced $30 or more a bottle? Broadly speaking, winemakers are buying it at dollar-store prices, an average $457 a ton, down from $463 the previous year. This compares to an average $1,633 per ton for pinot noir and $1,068 per ton for cabernet sauvignon. Of course, averages can be misleading. In two of the state's principal zinfandel regions, the average price for zinfandel is substantially higher than the state average - $2,435 per ton in Sonoma County, $1,078 in the Sierra foothills.

And speaking of the Sierra foothills, the report seems to validate the popular view that several varieties other than zinfandel have a promising future in the region. Barbera, for one, sold for an average $1,213 per ton in the area, mourvedre for $1,365, vermentino for $1,500, verdelho for $1,246 and viognier for $1,263. Does that also mean that malbec at $1,514 a ton has a future in the foothills as a varietal? Not necessarily; that price simply could reflect a short supply, and the reality that malbec often is used in Bordeaux-style blends, the popularity of which is on the rise. But what are we to make of cabernet sauvignon, generally dismissed as a weak player in the foothills? Nevertheless, Mother Lode cabernet sauvignon fetched an average $1,149 per ton.

Industry insight on the report can be found at this feature on the trade Web site, while all the statistics themselves can be found here.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Sierra's Loss, Santa Cruz's Gain

Lance Campbell, founding winemaker at Mount Aukum Winery in southwestern El Dorado County, has left the Sierra foothills and relocated to Santa Cruz, where he and his wife Brandie just established Copious Winery.

Their initial lineup includes three wines out of the foothills from the 2007 vintage - a cabernet sauvignon, a petite sirah and a mourvedre. They crushed their first grapes at their new home this past harvest, including a Sonoma Coast pinor noir, a Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon and a Carneros chardonnay.

"When I first fell in love with winemaking it was Napa cabernet and Sonoma pinot noir and chardonnay that charmed me, so returning to coastal winemaking is like remembering a high-school sweetheart and rediscovering what that first impression was like. For all the hearthache of leaving Mount Aukum, at least there is the reward and growth in a new but familiar journey," says Campbell.

Why Santa Cruz? "We like it here. And the kids love it," says Campbell. On top of that, Copious is in a relatively quiet west Santa Cruz neighborhood that virtually overnight has become a hotbed of artisan urban winemaking. In addition to Copious, other wineries in the immediate area include Bonny Doon Vineyard, Odanata Cellars, Trout Gulch Vineyard and Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard. They are clustered along and about Ingalls and Swift streets, an area that also includes cafes, boutiques, a snazzy bakery and an alternative grocery store.

Santa Cruz also boasts the trade group Surf City Vintners, an organization worth bookmarking - - for when you are planning a weekend in the area and know you can't spend all that time on the roller coaster. One of those weekends might as well include March 20, when the Campbells hold their grand-opening celebration. If you can't wait until then, Copious Winery, 427 Swift St., is open noon-5 p.m. Friday through Sunday.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Drink Wine. Not Too Much. Mostly From Grapes.

While killing time at the entertaining Dallas airport earlier this week - no, seriously, an airport today can be entertaining, with pubs and fashion boutiques, wine bars and game kiosks - I strolled into the bookstore Simply Books and began to flip through Michael Pollan's latest effort, "Food Rules: An Eater's Manual."

With disciplined reporting, nimble fingers and a knack for the catchy aphorism, Pollan has become this era's most highly regarded advocate of wholesome eating, stepping into the formidable shoes of such earlier nutrition advocates as Adelle Davis and Jack LaLanne.

In short, Pollan's "Food Rules" constitute a handy distillation of advice from his beefier tomes on eating soundly, most notably "In Defense of Food," in which he coined the pithiest and soundest of eating admonitions: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Slim but costly - $11, though sells it for $5 - "Food Rules" is designed for members of the Twitter generation. It's a pocket-size nutritional Bible that the faltering can keep with them and fetch instantly for righteous reassurance as they pass the glazed temptations of Dunkin Donuts at the Dallas airport.

I didn't buy the book, though I may eventually. I actually had time enough before my flight to read the whole thing, which runs to some 100 large-print pages and 64 truncated rules. I didn't, but in my scanning of the contents I found much of the advice good old common sense ("Eat meals together, at regular meal times"), several points amusing ("Don't eat breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk") and the overall tone helpful and earnestly enlightening more than scolding.

It also got me to thinking of what 64 guidelines - "rules" sounds too dogmatic - I could come up with for a lean and tight paperback that might be called "Wine Precepts: A Drinker's Manual". I cut off my list, however, at a more symmetrical 50:

1. With apologies to Michael Pollan: Drink wine. Not too much. Mostly from grapes.

2. Doesn't matter if it's red, white or pink.

3. Keep a cork puller with you at all times.

4. Keep a spit cup with you at all times.

5. When you come across a wine sale with preposterously low prices, buy one bottle, open it immediately in the parking lot, take a taste, and if you like it and sense it will age well, return to the store for more.

6. For everyday bargains, look to obscure varietals (albarino, verdelho, carignane) and underappreciated appellations (Sicily, Tehama, Valle de Casablanca).

7. Doesn't matter if the bottle is cork finished or has a screwcap.

8. Remember that "98" on a shelf talker is one person's pointed yet hazy rating of a wine, not the vintage, which is on the label.

9. Don't pay much heed to vintage charts; they try to be helpful but also tend to be overly broad, overlooking microclimates that escape heavy rains, high temperatures, an early or a late frost.

10. Do pay attention to the level of alcohol on a wine's label; if it's 15 percent or higher on a table wine, heavily seasoned and charred tri-tip best be on the menu.

11. With each glass of wine, drink a glass of water.

12. Drink with others, and don't shy from expressing your opinion.

13. It's OK to buy your wine where you buy your gasoline, but don't drink it in the car.

14. Fill the glass just a third.

15. Except when drinking from squat tumblers, made for wines to be quaffed more than swirled.

16. Befriend a wine merchant who is candid and undefensive, with an adventurous palate and a sense of humor.

17. Look upon a wine critic as a GPS unit that hasn't necessarily been updated; he may or may not get you to where you want to go.

18. Look with equal skepticism on advice concerning the pairing of a specific food with a particular wine.

19. Some very good wines are expensive; some very good wines aren't.

20. Don't impulsively dismiss the grand old names - Robert Mondavi, Stony Hill, Ridge, Heitz - in favor of the fashionably new.

21. Remember that the wines that win gold medals at competitions almost invariably are the biggest, sweetest, hottest, heaviest wines in the judging.

22. In looking for a wine likely to express place, start by looking for a wine with a specific vineyard designation.

23. Drink by the season - whites in spring and summer, reds in fall and winter.

24. Roses, like sparkling wines, are wines for all seasons.

25. It's OK to drink white zinfandel, even if it isn't white.

26. You can't really hear a wine as you stand in a crowd; sit down, but not alone.

27. Yes, the giants of the wine trade - Gallo, Diageo, Constellation - do have a clue.

28. Tons per acre, pounds per bunch, clusters per vine are fun, but aren't necessarily a measure of how much fun is in the glass.

29. If it comes from a grape, drink it with an open mind; if it comes from rhubarb, drink it with a more open mind.

30. The fewer the qualifications, the more potentially enlightening the blind tasting.

31. You can't judge a wine by its label, unless the art is totally unrelated to agriculture, tradition or nature, and then just be wary.

32. Only you know what kind of wine you should drink.

33. Wine in a bag in a box tastes best on some kind of boat, from cruise ship to canoe.

34. It's OK to put ice cubes in a glass of wine that's too warm or too intense.

35. But wine coolers aren't wine.

36. Wine proves that something can taste good without fat, sodium, trans fats, added sugar and cholesterol.

37. Buy more wine, but sock it away for your children and grandchildren, or yourself.

38. A century from now, the most valuable collectible from today's California wine trade won't be a bottle but winery newsletters.

39. The best wines leave you both content and eager for more of the same.

40. Wine is all about memory, not tastebuds.

41. Be polite and keep it to yourself when you hear a winemaker say he can't select his favorite wine any more than he can select his favorite child.

42. You can tell a country's aesthetic values by the general nature of its wines, which explains why the United States has the most varied range of wine styles on the planet.

43. The wine-friendliest restaurants have wine lists with several selections priced identically as their entrees.

44. When you bring a bottle of wine to a dinner party as a hostess gift, don't expect to drink it that night.

45. The finer the lip of the glass, the better the wine tastes.

46. There's a reason why Bacchus looks so young in all those Renaissance paintings: wine.

47. Then again, maybe his parents recognized that if you want to rear a god you'd best introduce him to wine at an early age.

48. If you aren't still talking about a $20 wine at the end of a meal, it's overpriced.

49. When neo-prohibitionists start to whine about wine, remind them that without it the small-family farm would be history.

50. When you find a non-alcoholic wine that tastes like wine, message me:

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Class Of 2010

Winemaker Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard at Santa Cruz is one of five members of this year's class of inductees into the Vintners Hall of Fame at the Napa Valley campus of the Culinary Institute of America. Wish I'd known about it before publication of a feature I wrote about Grahm that appears in today's Sacramento Bee, but at least I'm happy that California's most imaginative and literate winemaker is getting this notable formal recognition.

The other inductees are the late wine historian Leon Adams, author of "The Wines of America" (and a onetime McClatchy newspaperman); North Coast vineyardist and environmentalist Andy Beckstoffer; Al Brounstein, founder of Diamond Creek Vineyards in Napa Valley, which was instrumental in introducing vineyard-designated cabernet sauvignons as well as the notion that California wine could sell for $100 a bottle; and Zelma Long, who matriculated in enology and viticulture in the 1960s at UC Davis (where she was the only woman student in the class) and went on to play pivotal roles at Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley and Simi Winery at Healdsburg before establishing her own brand, Vilafonte, in South Africa.

After four years, the spring induction ceremony for the Vintners Hall of Fame has grown from a single formal dinner to a day-long series of tastings and lunches leading up to the finale. More information can be found at this page on the CIA's Web site.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Wine Competitions: The Last Resort?

If a student in enology at UC Davis is searching for a topic on which to base a dissertation, I have a suggestion: Find out why vintners enter wine competitions.

After the first day of the Dallas Morning News Wine Competition, I have an uneasy feeling that many winemakers desperately are hoping that a silver or gold medal will sell a wine they've been totally unable to unload otherwise. They could see the wine competition as their last hope before they start to fill out the papers to file for bankruptcy.

What else explains the sorry results of Class 390, which our panel judged. That's the class into which all "dry red table wine blends" were grouped. We had 51 of them. Ordinarily, this is a promising class, for it generally includes inexpensive bread-and-butter wines that vintners may not much brag about but whose quality and popularity provide a solid financial foundation for the continued growth and experimentation of their winery. The class had one other thing going for it. It was our first of the day. Our palates ostensibly were fresh, our optimism high.

At the end of six flights, however, we'd given only one gold medal. In a group that size, we should have had at least two or three more. Ironically, the only gold we awarded went to the very first wine in the class. After that, things more or less went downhill, though I felt three other wines deserved gold, but I got outvoted. Four wines in the class smelled so flawed I was wary of tasting them. Several tasted as if they were made with under-ripe fruit. In a couple of instances I wondered whether a loose gasket went undetected in the fermentation tank. And with one wine I think I found the answer to the old question of whether roadkill can be fermented and bottled. It can, but I don't see it as a new revenue source for Caltrans.

But not all is lost. There is the identity of that one gold-medal wine to look forward to. And I also am eager to learn the identity of the three that I also felt warranted gold but ended up with silver or bronze. I will continue to be bothered, however, by the high proportion of truly dismal wines in the class, which leaves me wondering what vintners must have been thinking when they came up with such blends and attempted to push them onto a trusting public.