Breaking News: Bureaucrats Can Be Idiots

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grape pickerIt is common practice for wineries to offer their wine club members the opportunity to participate in harvest by helping to pick grapes or work on the crush pad. As payment, the winery will throw a barbecue, open some wine, but more importantly their customers get the satisfaction of helping to make the wine they drink, come to know the people behind the wine, and learn about the wine making process. The point is to have fun and create a sense of community.

Of course the winery benefits from some unpaid labor. But I know in San Diego, there is not enough surplus farm labor handy to harvest grapes when the winemaker determines its time to pick. So at harvest time, the call goes out to friends, family, and fellow growers—everybody in the wine business in fact—to come help harvest. Everybody helps each other out and everyone benefits. Again, it’s called a sense of community and it is a key element in what makes the wine business attractive. Without this sense of community many artisanal wineries could not survive.

It turns out that according to the California State Department of Industrial Relations this practice is illegal. Westover Winery in Castro Valley was fined $115,000 and forced out of business for using wine club members to help with harvest.

The Department of Industrial Relations released the following statement regarding this case:

“The public policy of the state, as expressed in the California Labor Code, is to vigorously enforce minimum labor standards so that employees are not required to work under substandard conditions and to protect law-abiding employers from unfair competition by others who don’t comply with minimum standards. The Labor Commissioner is the state’s chief law enforcement officer, responsible for carrying out this policy. Like any law enforcement officer, the Labor Commissioner responds to complaints received and must follow where the evidence leads. “

The policy applies to interns as well who are learning the wine trade through volunteering, another common practice. Apparently in this case one of the volunteers filed a workman’s compensation case which triggered the investigation.

I don’t have any particular knowledge of what was going on at Westover Winery, but the idea that wine club members are “required to work under substandard conditions” is ridiculous. They are volunteers—no one is required to work. Moreover they are not trained pickers or skilled laborers. The idea that they are replacing the labor force with virtual “slaves” doesn’t pass the laugh test. It really isn’t hard to distinguish volunteers from unpaid immigrant laborers or workers who aren’t permitted to use the bathroom.

This appears to be another case in which large commercial wineries use the state to stamp out mom-and-pop operations.

I have a lot of sympathy for people charged with writing regulations that captured the complexity of a practice. But applying the law requires good judgment and in this case it’s hard to see how the state bureaucracy is applying good judgment. Are we next going to outlaw pot-luck dinners because its unfair to the catering business?

Wine Review: Santa Margherita Valdadige Pinot Grigio 2013

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santa margheritaPinot Grigio is the most popular imported white grape variety in the U.S. Frankly, I just don’t get it. It’s not aromatic and on the palate is largely a mouthful of acidity—refreshing to be sure but so is water and I don’t pay $12 for a glass of water. The problem is not the grape. The very same grape when vinified  in Alsace is complex, fleshy, and hedonistic. But the Italians harvest early to preserve acidity producing a sea of thin, uninteresting wines that garner relatively high prices because of the demand.

The Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio from the Alto Aldige region of Italy is the largest selling Italian import to the U.S. And it’s pricey. Is it a cut above this sea of mediocrity?

Faint apple and pear notes play well with a salty mineral aroma that sets this wine apart. On the palate it is bone dry, light bodied, with crisp acidity but not much flavor. It will pair well with fish or light chicken dishes but you won’t find much to contemplate. It is better than most Pinot Grigio, if you like salty minerality, but at this price, if you want something crisp and refreshing, a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc would provide more interest and you would get some pocket change back as well.

Score: 88

Price: $23

Alc: 12%

Budget Wine: Challis Lane Merlot California 2012

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challis lane merlotWe are all familiar with the type: reliable, competent, pleasant, polished, not a hair out of place, but unremarkable, with little to say, unoriginal, exceedingly ordinary in every way. There is much to be said in favor of such a person—they make a reliable  co-worker, a good neighbor, an affable acquaintance.

This Challis Lane Merlot reminds me of such a person. Cherry with underlying earth tones and a hint of vanilla that make a pleasant nose. Soft and fruity, smooth and polished on the palate, with just enough dusty tannins to remind you you’re drinking wine. Certainly not interesting, but there is nothing distracting, or unpleasant either—a likable quaffer when you need something that goes down easily.

Score: 85

Price:  $10 at Bevmo but usually in their 5-cent sale

Alc. 13.5

The Courage to Make Wine

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lebanese wine growingWhile working on our forthcoming San Diego Wine Guide, we had the opportunity to talk to many courageous winemakers who gave up lucrative, comfortable careers for the rigors and uncertainties of growing grapes and making wine. But these profiles in courage pale in comparison to Syria and Lebanese winemakers who struggle against religion and war as well as the elements.

In his high-rise office in Beirut, Sandro Saade carefully chews a merlot grape from a vineyard hundreds of miles away in war-ravaged Syria, trying to determine if it is ripe enough to order the start of the harvest.

It’s too dangerous for him to travel to the vineyards of Domaine de Bargylus, which is nestled in verdant hills where wine has been produced since ancient times. But despite the bloody conflict and the threat of Islamic extremists, he is determined to produce world-class wines, and to help preserve a Levantine cosmopolitanism imperiled by decades of war….We are passionate about this, and we aren’t stopping. We will continue as much as we can,” Saade said. “The challenge is not just to make wine, but to maintain a high quality wine.

The quest for beauty has inspired many to risk much throughout history. Sometimes that quest involves painting pictures with alcoholic grape juice—another reminder that wine is not just a beverage.

Pushing Back Against the Green-Eyed Jealous Monster

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green eyed monsterSkepticism about the value of wine criticism is ubiquitous, as I detailed in this post last month. But pushback against the wine-tasting-is-bunk meme is gathering steam. Perhaps all the major media publishing this drivel will offer a retraction soon.

This article by Jonathan Lipsmeyer at Gargantuan Wine identifies the problem. In response to the charge that wine tasting is subjective, Gargantua simply grants the point—What form of criticism is not subjective? Imagining a gaggle of critics discussing a painting by the pointillist Seurat, he writes:

Not unlike our wine critics, no two critics would describe the painting in a completely similar manner. An integral part of the problem is that the galaxy of stimuli is so vast that it’s difficult to circumscribe — a seemingly infinite body of descriptive text could find its source in this one painting. And invariably, some critics would contradict elements of others’ description — perhaps the emotion conveyed; the nature of the colors; or the Pandora’s box that is the intention of the artist.

And yet, in spite of this, each critic would be contributing legitimate information. Each critic would be elegantly articulating a thoughtful impression. And — barring questions of integrity and candor! — each critic’s description could be considered equally valid, as it invited reflection, cultivated appreciation, and brought greater understanding.

In all other forms of criticism, we accept the fact that critics will be offering their own unique point of view. While it is in principle possible for others to share that point of view, most people don’t—that is what makes the critic interesting and her writing sufficiently original to bother reading. Yet with regard to wine, this role of the critic is denied by the naysayers, usually without argument.

There are nuances that Lipsmeyer alludes to but doesn’t discuss. Like all human perception, wine tasting is only partly subjective; it is also rooted in reliable connections between our perceptual mechanisms and reality. If wine tasting were wholly subjective we couldn’t intelligibly discuss wine at all. And in fact there is wide agreement among experts about some aspects of wine—Lafite is more complex and has better balance and depth of flavor than 2-Buck Chuck, 2005 was a great year for Bordeaux, Barolo’s tend to have lots of tannin. Anyone who disagrees is spouting nonsense.

The question of to what degree wine tasting is objective is an interesting philosophical question because it forces us to get clear on the various factors that influence taste and it is important to recognize that some methods of tasting will be more objective than others. But what we want from wine criticism is not a recounting of facts but an overall impression of the wine and an evaluation. In the end, these judgments will rely on our personal histories, unique biological factors and personal preference—there is no getting around that. But that doesn’t distinguish wine from most of the rest of life.

As Lippsmeyer says,

So much ire is founded in what seems to be a green-eyed jealousy that “these critics say they taste things that I sure as shit can’t”; so, the naysayer concludes, “it must all be worthless”. Curiously, other forms of cultural currency are spared this onslaught.

Why winetasting is singled out as being uniquely subjective is a mystery for which I have no answer. Perhaps taste preferences are so closely tied to personal identity that expert opinion is experienced as a personal affront.

Aging Report: Borgogno Riserva Barolo Piemonte 1967

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barola borgognoWine is extraordinary because, unlike other foods and beverages, it can improve with age. The best reason to drink aged wines is that they develop flavors and aromas that can only be experienced via the aging process. But that cannot be the only reason some of us are fascinated by aged wines because, frankly, some of them don’t have a lot of flavor left to experience. Eventually the fruit flavors fade, the mouthfeel loses its lushness and becomes little more than a mouthful of acid.  Yet there is still something worthy of reverence about popping the cork (or carefully easing it out) on a really old bottle.

Most age-worthy wines improve for 15-20 years before beginning their decline although some—from Barolo, the best vintages of Bordeaux, a few Rieslings—have a reputation for aging 50-60 years. The question is whether they actually improve over that long span of time.

At our recent Wine Elite San Diego meeting we opened this Barolo from 1967. Surprisingly, it still shows classic dried floral aromas and some tar, with licorice notes enveloped by smoke and ash. There is plenty of aromatic complexity to explore, although the fruit is now almost unidentifiable. The loss of fruit leaves the palate feeling austere but, with persistent firm tannins and high acidity, the impression of vibrancy and power is apparent even as the wine fades into senescence.

Although past its prime, this survivor from the 60’s soldiers on with still much to give. Should it have been opened 15 years ago? I don’t think so. Survival itself is worthy of admiration especially when it exudes such impressive signs of life.

As I write this, I’m gazing at the fiercely-etched, 1000-ft. high stone pillars in Navajo Country’s Monument Valley, survivors of millions of years of erosion from wind and rain. Barolos such as this Riserva are the monuments of the wine world.

Budget Wine: Charamba Red Wine Douro Portugal 2011

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charambaThe Aveleda family’s entry level wine. Very bright, fresh, red and black berries, smoke, and a hint of barnyard on the nose—enough complexity to keep you interested. But this is a Portuguese wine so there is a toughness to it even on the nose, a bit reserved.

On the palate, very nice fruit and spice and medium body but with structure–high acidity and sandy tannins that leave on overall rustic impression. Portuguese wines from the Douro tend to be very flavorful but dry and rugged with no concession to softness or sweetness. This is typical of that style and at a great price, a terrific everyday wine made from a blend of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca and other grapes that are also used to make port.

 

Score: 86

Price: $10

Alc: 14%

Food Snobs are Your Brothers and Sisters

food snobSnobs are looked down upon in our faux-egalitarian society. We praise vast inequalities in wealth or strength, but when it comes to knowledge, anyone who thinks they have more of it is subject to ridicule. Of course, this gets the order of value exactly backwards. After all a snob is nothing but a geek who knows how to make eye contact.

So I dearly love Snobsite.com: The Online Home of Cultural Snobbery where aficionados of many stripes can find spiritual support and sustenance. .

Author David Camp, proprietor of the site, writes “snob dictionaries” for the culturally challenged that will get your vocabulary up to speed on film, food, wine, and music so you can at least pretend to have knowledge—”fake it till you make it” is of course the motto of aspiring snobs everywhere.

His latest tome is The Food Snob’s Dictionary. He helpfully supplies a lengthy definition of a food snob:

Part groupie, part aesthete, part stark raving loon, the Food Snob is someone who has taken the amateur epicure’s admirable zeal for eating and cooking well to hollandaise-curdling extremes. He wears Bastad chef’s clogs even though he works in publishing or property law. He owns an $8,000 gas range with six burners and a griddle. He’s collected the cookbooks not only of James Beard’s first-tier protégés, Marion Cunningham and Barbrara Kafka, but also of the all-but-forgotten second-tierers John Clancy, Felipe Rojas-Lombardi, and Maurice Moore-Betty. He makes his own stocks, has taken a night course in mycology so that he may forage his own mushrooms, casually alludes to the “sugar work” he performed in the course of whipping up his famous homemade Christmas confectionery, and bakes rustic sourdough loaves daily from the pain au levain starter he’s had going since 1996.

And he includes a short history of food snobbery that will serve as a short history of our burgeoning cultural interest in food.

But his greatest contribution is a plea for understanding and empathy that should resonate with households across the world:

Finally, let us express our sincere hope that this brief volume serves not only as a handy reference, but as a tool for understanding. Though they are sometimes impossible to live with and are wont to sharply order us out of the kitchen, Food Snobs are often our friends and loved ones. We must understand that theirs is a heavy burden to bear; uneasy lies the imaginary toque. By letting them select the fingerlings at market, by indulging them as they geekily articulate their fantasies of someday meeting the food-chemistry guru Harold McGee and preparing a capon with him, we not only validate their passions but indulge the little bit of Food Snob in ourselves. For isn’t it true, after all, that every one of us can admit to preferring artisanal bacon over Oscar Meyer?

Well said, Mr. Camp, well said.

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