Budget Wine: Mark West Pinot Noir California 2013

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mark westFamously difficult to grow and difficult to make, Pinot Noir used to be primarily for connoisseurs. Budget Pinot was almost unheard of until Mark West came along in 2001 and figured out how to make large quantities close enough to the real thing to satisfy the average consumer. In the early days they called their product “Pinot for the People”. Now it’s owned by Constellation Brands, which pushes out close to a million cases of the stuff every year.

Thankfully it tastes like wine and like Pinot Noir, sort of. A mix of simple red and black cherry on the nose with floral notes and toasty spice notes from oak staves. It’s hard to find any earth there, but California Pinot Noir often lacks earth even at premium prices. The palate is soft but dull turning tart very quickly. There is plenty of acidity; if there were more it would be seriously out of balance given the meager fruit on the palate. The lightweight, delicate texture and restrained fine-grained tannins on the finish again fit the Pinot profile—but there is not a lot of flavor. Still, it is better than most of the cheaper, generic village wines from Burgundy which is the home of Pinot Noir.

If you’re craving Pinot Noir and all you have is a Hamilton in your wallet this is about the best you can do. Mark West deserves kudos for making the grape accessible to budget-minded consumers. I have yet to taste a cheaper Pinot that consistently does it better. But seriously, if you’re craving Pinot Noir hold on to the Hamilton until it doubles and trade up a notch.

In honor of the Pinot Revolution, here is Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power”. I know it’s a bit optimistic but we should always drink in hope.

Score: 83

Price: $10

Alc: 13.5%

Cheap Wine is Boring: Why That Matters

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cheap wineBlake Gray is disappointed in the cheap wine he finds on the market these days:

For under $10, you can expect a bottle of wine that tastes like fruit not found in nature. It won’t be spoiled or oxidized. There will be nothing wrong with it. But it will be so boring you could fall asleep and face-plant into the glass.

I agree. I review budget wines once per week and it is the rare occasion when I find something interesting at that price level.  In days past it wasn’t so. Even 10 years ago, you could be surprised by the quality of a cheap bottle. But, on the downside, it was always a crap shoot. Sometimes a bottle was undrinkable and most of it was just barely tolerable. But there were gems to be found if you knew where to look. Today, thanks to new technologies, the general level of quality has significantly improved. I rarely have to pour a bottle down the drain and most cheap wine is properly made. But there is, too often, nothing distinctive about it. The rough edges have been rounded off making most of it inoffensive but innocuous and generic.

The culprit is wine industry consolidation. According to research released in 2012, three firms—E & J Gallo Winery, The Wine Group, and Constellation Brands—accounted for more than half of U.S. wine sales. All those brands you see on the supermarket shelf are a marketing illusion—different labels owned by the same parent company. Large companies tend to produce a generic, standardized product appealing to the “average” consumer.

Gray goes on to ask if it matters, especially when beer and cider are getting interesting and can be had for under $10:

The question is, should we care? Does it matter? It’s not hurting Big Wine Business; Gallo is thriving, not suffering, in the new environment. And I’m not sure it hurts smaller producers to have more people recognize that they have to spend $15 or more for a bottle of wine.

I think it does matter. I would guess most wine lovers started out drinking inexpensive wines—when you are young that is all you can afford. It is that occasional gem that convinced us to trade up to increase our odds of getting something special. If those gems are less available the opportunities to turn the occasional wine consumer into a wine lover will be diminished—to the craft beer brewer’s benefit.

Craft beer is a threat to the wine industry because the wine industry has gone corporate.

All the more reason to drink local wines, or wines from independent producers. The problem is that small producers struggle to make wine that can be sold for under $10. It takes a large producer to make money on a small margin.

So the world has changed. Gem hunting is more expensive today but less likely to cause you to wretch.

Is that a good trade-off?

What’s Healthy? Who Knows?

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steakI always keep an eye on news about diet. After all it is one area of health that you can control—if you have good information. But the recent release of the U.S. government’s dietary guidelines really has brought home the fact that much of what we’ve been told by mainstream medical authorities for the last 50 years turns out to be wrong. Salt is no longer a silent killer; dietary cholesterol won’t cause you to keel over with a heart attack; saturated fat from red meat, cheese, and cream are OK as long as you’re not packing on pounds (although this is still disputed by the government guidelines in the face of substantial evidence vindicating saturated fat). The only things we need to be careful about is sugar, refined carbs, and processed meat. (This assumes of course that you don’t have a medical condition that requires dietary restrictions)

These new guidelines won’t cause me to change much in my diet. We eat very few salt-laced processed foods—I prefer to cook fresh foods from scratch most of the time so I have never restricted salt intake. I love vegetables and I don’t like eggs, and there are good environmental reasons not to eat too much meat, so I plan no changes there. Cream tends to dull flavors so I have always been light-handed with that anyway for reasons other than health. But cheese? This is a good excuse to spend more time in the cheese shop. Truth be told, I was never willing to sacrifice flavor; life is too short. But if I had sacrificed the enjoyment of food at the behest of these experts I would be plenty steamed about it.

So the larger question is what to make of all the misleading science we have been consuming for many years. Clearly, these changes show that doing this kind of science is really hard. Randomized trials give us the best data but it is hard to do them with human populations. You have to find a group of people you can watch for several years, randomly select those that are to change their diets, and then the subjects have to actually do what they’re told and report their actions honestly.  Good luck with all of that. So we are stuck with epidemiological studies in which it is hard to sort our causation from correlation.

I would be “nice” if we could take 10,000 kids, put them in quarantine, feed them experimental diets and monitor them for 70 years to see what happens. But there might be a couple of ethical problems with that experiment.

The fact of the matter is these new guidelines could turn out to be as misleading as the old ones.

The problem is not incompetent scientists or flaws in the scientific method. Science thrives on skepticism, on withholding belief until we have enough evidence to be reasonably certain about our conclusions. But our society won’t let science be skeptical. We crave health news because it has an immediate impact on our welfare and the media is all too happy to supply us with the latest theory long before the science is settled because it attracts eyeballs. Throw in corporate capitalism’s incentives to sell us whatever we think we need and we have a toxic medium in which misinformation can thrive.

None of that is likely to change. But it is becoming increasingly clear that food is not medicine. Trying to improve health by fine tuning your intake of nutrients—what Michael Pollan calls “nutritionism—is a mug’s game.

So I will continue to follow this sage advice: Everything in moderation including moderation. When there is something good to eat in the neighborhood I’ll be elbowing the Nutrition Nazis out of the way.

Wine Review: Cabernet Pfeffer DeRose Vineyards Cienega Valley 20111

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cabernet pfefferOne of the great joys of wine tasting is discovering a little-known variety that provides a distinctive and memorable tasting experience. While I was poking around the area near Hollister last fall (San Benito County inland from Monterey), I came across this grape that I had never heard of and certainly had never tasted. As far as I can tell there is less than 10 acres planted in California, mostly at DeRose and other nearby vineyards. It is so succulent, I can’t understand why it hasn’t caught on. But I suppose it has to do with the eternal marketing paradox—without publicity no one knows about it, and if no one knows about no one will buy it, and if no one will buy it, no one will plant it, so there is no reason to publicize it.

So here is my contribution to breaking the spell of that paradox—call every winemaker you know and demand cases of Cabernet Pfeffer.

What is so great about it? It’s a combination of vivacity and richness. It reminds me a bit of Syrah from Northern Rhone: pepper and floral notes over red berry fruit, on a sturdy, medium-bodied frame, lots of mid-palate structure, not too tannic and with a seam of minerality keeping things fresh and lively. But this version has some mild vanilla from the oak marking it as distinctly American and some hints of fresh loam to give it additional interest. It is outstanding with pasta served with a tomato and mushroom sauce.

The origins of this grape are murky. For many years it was thought to be the a cross of Cabernet Sauvignon and Trousseau carried out by a 19th Century winemaker by the name of Pfeffer. But plantings from the nearby Wirz Vineyard were analyzed and found to be Mourtaou—an obscure French variety no longer planted in France. The name Cabernet Pfeffer is apparently also used as a synonym for Gros Verdot, another French variety. In any case there is no relation to Cabernet Sauvignon.

Full of a kind of Gatsbyish vibrancy and charm, this calls for a celebration: A little Dancing in the Streets from Mick and David circa 1993

Score: 90

Price: $27

Alc: 14.1%

Budget Wine: Beringer Bold and Balanced Cabernet Sauvignon NV Argentina

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beringer bold and balancedThe quest for the best of the cheap continues. This one is not the best of anything but it has its virtues.

Black cherry and mint on the simple, low intensity,  yet pleasant nose. But the palate is thin and tart. It is dry with a nice acidic bite but the fruit falls of a cliff. Refreshing but meager with a short, acid-driven finish and underlying soft tannins. There is nothing bold about this and its only balanced on the edge of a precipice. Happily, it doesn’t have the faux opulence of some cheap wines—no candied fruit, bubblegum perfume, or chocolate/vanilla pretense. Too spare and austere for many but if you’re tired of bluster and bluff on the bottom shelf this might be your wine.

Something quiet and austere. Here is the great Nina Simone: I Want a Little Sugar in my Bowl

Score: 82

Price: $5

Alc: 13%

Is the Wine Spectator Fomenting Revolution?

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screaming eagleThe usually reliable Matt Kramer has me confused. In his recent Wine Spectator column he has a go at distinguishing a genuine luxury good from heavily-marketed faux-luxury goods. By implication he seems to think many wines fall into the faux-luxury category.

And he starts in the right place. A luxury good is inessential—we don’t need it—and it taps into our dreams, our aspirations, which of course is what marketers prey on.

With regard to wine, the appearance of exclusivity and privilege also define luxury:

With wine, the idea of luxury trades on two features—exclusivity and privilege. The two are interrelated, but are also separately powerful. Ironically, neither actually has to really exist. They only have to seem to exist. This is perhaps the critical point. And that, in turn, is the very key that distinguishes real luxury from faux.

Kramer’s point seems to be that any good marketer can restrict supply, raise the price of the product, and give the appearance of exclusivity thus enticing the status seekers. This is faux-luxury because it is all about appearances. It is what the big Champagne houses and celebrated wine regions do.

So what is genuine luxury? Here things get strange:

Scalability is the giveaway. Faux luxury can always be scaled-up to meet growing demand. Real luxury cannot.

I’m not sure about this. A Bentley is a luxury car. Like all automobiles, Bentley uses modern manufacturing methods. They could easily be scaled up if demand for Bentleys were to increase. Of course they wouldn’t do that. They would raise the price instead. But does that mean a Bentley is not a genuine luxury car? Presumably, most small, low-production wineries could scale up if they wanted to by expanding their contracts with growers and adding production capacity. Does that mean they lack quality?

His main example provides a clue to what he has in mind:

Distinguishing real luxury from faux is not that hard. Here’s the key: How much involvement, i.e., knowledge, purposeful pursuit and engagement, is required of you to both know about and acquire the luxury? If it comes to you easily, all tied up with a bow, with no investigation or education required on your part, it’s faux luxury.

Let me offer an example. A man can buy a very expensive suit, made with genuinely fine fabric, off the rack. Such brands are famous and cost thousands of dollars. But it’s not really made for you, never mind its aura of exclusivity.

Or that same man can go to a tailor on Savile Row. They will take dozens of measurements and hand-tailor an exquisitely fitting suit which fit is further refined by yet another fitting session—or even a third one. What results is a luxury designed and made solely for you alone. The suit will fit in a way no off-the-rack item can, no matter how expensive or luxurious-seeming.

This is “true luxury.” It takes your involvement, your interest and, not least, education and effort on your part

I don’t think he is describing luxury. He is describing particularity, originality, uniqueness. What makes the tailored suit worthy is the fact it is not standardized—it is perfectly tailored to the unique characteristics of the wearer. There can be no other suit like it.

There are lots of wines that are original, unique, one-of-kind and that reflect the particularity of their origins. They are not therefore luxury wines.

Think of a life devoted to the pursuit of inessential, arcane, rare activities that require “involvement, your interest, and, not least, education and effort on your part”. Is that a life of luxury? It sounds more like the life of a scholar or artist.

I would be very happy if this were the “new life of luxury” where privileged people aspire to the production of new knowledge and great works. Our society might be better off for it.

Who would have thought that from the pages of the Wine Spectator a new age of Enlightenment is born.

Are Yelp Reviewers Children?

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ambulanceWe really are defining trauma down.

According to a recent study of Yelp reviews, a bad restaurant experience leaves diners suffering from trauma as if they had suffered a personal disaster, including the use of language akin to language used in discussing terrorist attacks

Scientists studied more than one million one star restaurant reviews posted on Yelp between 2011 and 2013 which spanned more than 6,5000 restaurants across major US cities like New York and San Francisco.

They found the language used by reviewers was similar to that used by people suffering from trauma. Linguistic clues including talking about their experience in the past tense, to distance themselves from the situation, and speaking as group rather than an individual.

Dan Jurafsky, professor of linguistics and computer science at Stanford University reports:

“We thought they would talk about how bad the food was, that it was greasy but instead they used very specific language using the past tense rather than the present tense and talking about other people a lot as well as using lots of negative words like ‘awful’ and ‘terrible’.

“It turns out that there is previous scientific literature showing that these are the same characteristics used by people writing after they have been traumatized, such as people writing after 9/11 or students writing after a campus tragedy.

“So when they are writing about one star restaurant reviews they are reminiscing about a small trauma that happened to them.”

The reviews focus on the treatment by the staff rather than the quality of the food:

“If you look at the reviews, sure enough it was all ‘someone was mean to me’, the waiter or waitress was rude. It’s all about personal interactions,” added Prof Jurafsky.

“You would think the review would be about the food but it’s actually all about this interaction. People feel injured and want to write about it.”

I don’t quite understand this. Someone being rude (or inattentive or slow) constitutes a trauma?

Better call mommy to complain.

One problem with review sites such as Yelp is that people self-select to get into the sample population. It is not a randomly selected sample and thus there is always the possibility the collection of people writing reviews is biased in some way—a certain kind of person may be more likely to write a negative review.

Apparently, negative reviewers on Yelp are disproportionately children traumatized by a scowling waitperson.

Of course, bloggers are disproportionately dyspeptic, unsympathetic bores who cannot resist a snark-laced jeremiad. So if you recently had a pot of hot coffee dumped in your lap, I apologize.

Wine Boats on the Douro River

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I’ve been under the weather for the last few days—not conducive to tasting and reviewing wines. But this video of the old days on Portugal’s Douro river cheered me up. (h/t Jamie Goode)

The Douro region is fascinating because it is an example of the hardships people have endured through history to harvest grapes and get their wines to market. Steep hillsides bordering the river meant workers had to carry harvested grapes on their back. And after the wine was barreled it was sent down the treacherous river in small boats to the port at Oporto to be shipped to England where most port wine was consumed.

Today, the Douro River is a placid thoroughfare for cruise ships carrying tourists into the back country, thanks to 5 dams and locks built in the early 1970’s. The port barrels are sent to Oporto in trucks travelling on well-paved roads, and in the larger vineyards in mid-Douro owned by the big port houses, terraced vineyards now allow some machine harvesting.

But in years past winemaking was a dangerous business.

A Platonic Valentine

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grassLove seeks beauty, a reckless, itinerant gambler aimed at the eternal possession of the good.

Love in its quest for beauty thus directs the mind toward knowledge.

But not knowledge of generality, not of types or stereotypes,  but of particulars, of individuality,

Of features so specific they belong to only one person, one work, one blade of grass.

Love seeks radical difference, how something differs from everything else.

Gesturing at the infinite, an unfulfilled hope.

Wine and Chocolate? Go Sweet or Go Home

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chocolateValentine’s Day is almost upon us and we are again accosted with recommendations to pair wine with chocolate. Some of those recommendations are nonsense.

The cardinal rule of wine and food pairing is that the wine must be sweeter than the food. Since even dark chocolate has a significant percentage of sugar in it, only dessert wines will match the sweetness level of chocolate. Dry wines will taste thin and tart and may make the chocolate taste excessively bitter.

The best pairing is a good semi-sweet or dark chocolate with Madeira Malvasia or Bual, such as this one.  Banyuls, Grenache-based fortified wine from  Southern France, is also a great pairing. Both wines have good acidity which helps give life to the viscous chocolate.

Port, Sauternes or Tokaji (at least puttonyos 3) are also good choices depending on the flavors you want to bring out, as are late-harvest Zinfandels.

But if you are tempted to pair a dry Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot Noir or Zinfandel with chocolate your date or guests will smile and go yum while thinking you’re an idiot. And don’t even think about Champagne.

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