Monday, December 24, 2012

Looking Back, Moving Ahead

Back in the day when I was a restaurant critic, I occasionally devoted an early column of the new year to an explanation of how I went about my job. The format typically was in reply to questions I'd get from readers via phone calls, letters (yes, this was long, long ago) and eventually emails.

Nowadays, my writing is mostly in this blog and in a weekly wine column I contribute to The Sacramento Bee, my former longtime employer, where I wrote the restaurant criticism. For whatever reason, readers of wine writing aren't as curious about how a wine columnist goes about his task; for every 50 questions I'd get about writing of restaurants, I'd maybe get one or two about writing of wine. Nevertheless, I still do get the rare question, the most frequent of which I will address here, with others I'm making up because I think they may be on the minds of readers who just haven't yet asked them.

Other than today being close to the start of a new year, I'm prompted to do this now because the wine blogosphere is ablaze with reports and commentary concerning the practices of a Canadian wine writer accused of intellectual property theft, copyright infringement and a pay-to-play scheme involving her reviews. These unsavory allegations cast a shadow over the entire wine-writing community, which, to judge by my experience, is by-and-large above-board and open in how it goes about following its whim and passion. At any rate:
  • How do you select the wines you write about? At the end of each column in The Bee is this disclaimer: "Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne's selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions and visits to wine regions." In discovering wines to potentially write about, I prefer the blind tasting, especially when the tasting involves fellow wine enthusiasts who are experienced, open-minded and willing to share their insights, thus my eagerness to join panels at wine competitions. I like to visit wineries, sometimes joining the winemaker to taste through his lineup of current and pending releases, more often on my own as just another pilgrim at the tasting counter. (An editorial aside from my There-Ought-To-Be-A-Law folder: Winery tasting rooms should start each day with freshly opened bottles; the practice of carrying over inadequately preserved open wine from one day to the next is insulting to wine enthusiasts and counter-productive to the winery's best interests.) I attend trade tastings, I round up wines for tastings at home, and dinner virtually each night includes a wine that I've bought in hopes that it might yield a story. Beyond these practical approaches in searching for wines to write about, I'm looking for wines that not only offer quality and value but have something to say of the region where their grapes were grown, of the aspirations of the winemaker, of winemaking technology, of a trend, of history or the like.
  • What's the connection between your wine writing and advertising? None that I'm aware of. There's no advertising on this site. While I've at times pondered selling advertising, I'm not interested in the chore or in the appearance or the reality of a conflict-of-interest. I haven't visited The Sacramento Bee since the day I retired four years ago. During my days of restaurant criticism no editor ever instructed me to or even suggested that I review this or that restaurant. Indeed, during my tenure at The Bee we were directed to avoid the first floor (the advertising department) and employees on the first floor were to stay off the second floor (the news department). The Bee sells advertising to wineries, but as with my restaurant writing no editor ever has as much as hinted that I should write of this or that winery or wine.
  • Do you accept sample wines? I do, but it's a practice I don't encourage. I appreciate wineries that contact me first to ask if I'd be interested in sampling a new release. I sample only those wines available in the Sacramento market. If in tasting a sample wine I find it to be a likely candidate for my column I buy the same wine locally to retaste it to confirm by my palate that it is essentially the same wine. Curious, I just scanned through my list of 210 wine columns over the past four years and found three wines that initially had been sample wines; by far, most of the wines I've written about have come from participating in wine competitions and by visiting wine regions.
  • Do you ever steal other peoples' tasting notes? Never have, never expect to. On their websites or via their media representatives, wineries generally provide technical sheets that give background information on each wine - the date or dates the grapes were harvested, the alcohol content of the wine, and the sorts of dishes that the winery thinks fitting for the wine. I draw my conclusions, then look to that kind of data to affirm or contradict my hunches. Occasionally the information provided by wineries will include the scores and tasting notes of other wine writers. While there are wine writers whose opinions I value, I almost invariably skip over that input.
  • Do you get paid by wineries to review their wines? What a racket that would be, however it might be constructed. Nope, don't do that, and won't. This could be a trend within wine criticism, however, with some critics casting envious looks at the "New Zealand model," whereby at least one Kiwi critic assesses fees on wineries to have their wines reviewed. It's a strategy that helps pay the bills, but raises questions about just how honest and aware the critic can be in providing even-handed guidance to his readers.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Goodbye Monkton, Hello Singapore

The first obligation of wine bloggers is to keep an eye on Robert M. Parker Jr. He's the Pope of wine criticism, after all, and if he as much as hiccups some members of the wine-blogging community, not quite interpreting the data correctly, jump up to apply the Heimlich Maneuver. There's quite a bit of that alarmed excitement going on in the blogosphere right now, given word that Parker is selling his influential newsletter, The Wine Advocate, to a group of Singaporeans with no apparent wine experience but plenty of money. (No price for their "substantial" stake in The Wine Advocate has been revealed, but almost surely Parker wouldn't sell controlling interest for less than several million dollars.) Though Parker says he isn't retiring, give him 100 points for astute timing, leveraging his waning influence just as the Asian economy and Asia's interest in wine are accelerating.

The Wall Street Journal broke the story today, but I can't read the article online because I'm not a subscriber. However, plenty of other bloggers have read it and their extensive and incisive interpretations have helped flesh out the story. Eric Asimov, wine columnist for The New York Times, provides the most comprehensive summation of the sale and its significance. (Since Asimov's posting, Parker has tweeted that the print edition of The Wine Advocate will continue, contrary to early reports.)

Over at Reuters, meanwhile, Felix Salmon turns out a bemused interpretation entertaining in part for its excerpts from the Wall Street Journal report. In that story, The Wine Advocate's newly annointed editor, Lisa Perrotti-Brown, is quoted as saying that she will be hiring a correspondent to cover wines made in China, Thailand and other Asian countries. Must be a part-time position.

And at, blogger Adam Lechere weighs in with an assessment that includes the most telling line of all, a partial quote from an anonymous source apparently close to the deal, noting that the sale of The Wine Advocate enhances prospects for the commercialization of the Parker brand, which really is the bottom line in today's Parker news.

A Wine Meant To Toast An Anniversary

Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti has been spending so much time jetting to Santa Monica to help celebrate the 40th anniversary of the long-acclaimed Italian restaurant Valentino that he's almost overlooked an even more significant milestone - the 65th anniversary of his family's Corti Brothers grocery store.

Almost, but not entirely. To commemorate both the store's brithday and its longtime search for unusual provisions with which to set the table, he quietly is releasing a series of anniversary wines. To my knowledge, the first was a 2010 aglianico, at least a few cases of which remain stacked in the store's wine department. A sleek red wine smelling of roses and berries, with a current of anise coursing through its fresh fruit flavor, the Corti Brothers 2010 Amador County Aglianico ($14) is an easy-going quaffer ideal for a lighter first course during a holiday dinner.

So what's aglianico? Pronounced "ah-lee-ah-nee-co," it's a thin-skinned black grape that thrives in the volcanic soils and warm temperatures of Italy's Campania and Basilicata regions. Very little is grown in California. When Darrell Corti decided he wanted to release an anniversary wine under the store's own label, he turned to longtime collaborators the Trinchero family in Napa Valley. Corti has been doing business with the Trincheros for 50 years. Together, their rediscovery of intense zinfandel from Amador County helped revive the wine trade in the region starting in the 1960s. The Trincheros subsequently bought one of the early players in that revival, the Shenandoah Valley winery Montevina, now named Terra d'Oro, which is where this aglianico was grown and the wine made.

At any rate, at Corti's request the Trincheros sent him samples of wines available for possible bottling under the Corti Brothers label. He especially liked the aglianico, and bottled 110 cases.

"Aglianico is a southern Italian variety famous for a wine called Taurasi, grown southeast of Naples, and another wine produced in Basilicata, Aglianico Del Vulture, named for the extinct volcano, Monte Vulture. This variety in its home area produces a nicely colored, transparent red wine, with a characteristic fruity scent, tannic when young, acquiring a licorice character when aged.. When I tasted the Amador County version, I found it to be nicely colored, aromatic, showing wood maturation, with a balanced flavor and body and that delicious more-ish quality of charming, savory fruitiness that makes it a real pleasure to drink. I think it is a wonderful anniversary wine that might just see us through to our 75th anniversary!," writes Corti in the store's fall newsletter.

He adds: "Aglianico is of uncertain origin. Some think that it is a Greek variety brought in when southern Italy was a Greek colony in the 6-7th century B.C. (Ellenico=Aglianico.) Some think that it was called “aglianos,” ‘clear,’ or “agliaia,” ‘shining,’ in classical Greek, to distinguish it from darker, more common varieties, producing coarser wines. Others think that it is the variety that produced Falernian, the famous wine of Roman times. In any case, I suggest you try the wine and then decide which origin to believe."

Now, he has released a second 65th anniversary wine, the Corti Brothers 2010 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($38). This is the first cabernet sauvignon to be bottled under the store's label since 1985. Indeed, the label art of the 2010 is the same as the label art that was used for the 1985, a painting by Chinese artist Tian Yulin. I haven't yet tasted the wine, so I'll have to take Corti's word that it is made in the "claret" style, with "excellent, classy varietal aroma, ripe, with good varietal expression." He adds: "It shows wood maturation, vinosity, and is not a 'fruit bomb.' Composed, it is medium weight in the mouth; dry, fruity, with gentle, fine tannin." Sounds like just the sort of wine that calls for an anniversary toast, whether in Santa Monica or Sacramento.