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Winebits 332: Powdered alcohol update, wine vs. beer, and corkage fees

Winebits 332: Powdered alcohol update, wine vs. beer, and corkage fees ? Not so fast, Palcohol: Last week’s post extolling the virtues of powered alcohol was a bit ahead of its time. Turns out the federal government didn’t approve the product after all. A spokesman told The Associated Press that the approvals were issued in error, but didn’t elaborate; you can draw your own conclusions from that, though my liquor attorney, in last week’s post, hinted that the whole thing sounded kind of goofy. Regardless, this means we’ll have to wait for our powderita, as horrible as the wait may be.

? The end of beer as we know it? This graphic, courtesy of Lew Perdue at Wine Industry Insight, speaks volumes about the ageing of the U.S. beer-drinking population. Between 2002 and 2013, beer’s market share, as measured by drink volume, has dropped from 60 percent of the total to 51.1 percent. Spirits’ shared moved from 27 to 33.7 percent and wine’s from 13 to 15.2 percent. Why call it ageing? Because many analysts think beer’s decline is not from beer drinkers switching to spirits or wine, but because they’re dying and younger consumers are drinking something else. This has shown up in slumping sales for the biggest national brands like Coors, Budweiser, and Miller.

? I’m shocked that gambling is going on here: The wine cyber-ether was abuzz last week with the news that the very chi-chi French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley charged a $150 corkage fee. The outrage was so viral that I’m surprised it didn’t show up on the blog even without my writing about it. Which I’m doing not because owner Thomas Keller cares what I write he probably collects criticism for his Pinterest site), but because no one should be surprised. This is the same restaurant that charges $70 for a half bottle of a Paso Robles white blend, which is almost four times the retail price for the half bottle. The other thing that’s not surprising? That his customers pay these prices. As one reader emailed me: “Are these people crazy?” Nope. Just rich.

Expensive wine 62: Chamisal Califa Chardonnay 2011

Expensive wine 62: Chamisal Califa Chardonnay 2011One of the challenges with writing about California chardonnay, and especially the expensive kind, is that the Wine Curmudgeon is often in danger of wearing out his welcome. How often will visitors here read “over-oaked” and “too much alcohol” before they shake their heads, click the post closed, cancel their e-mail subscription, and hope someone tells me I need to get some help.

Fortunately, I was at a big-time tasting last week, and the Califa ($40, sample, 13.2%) was one of the highlights. It comes from the Edna Valley, which means winemaker Fintan du Fresne doesn’t have to deal with the expectations that winemakers do in Napa or Sonoma. That means he can take advantage of the region’s cooler temperatures (and it was very cool in 2011) to fashion a leaner, though still rich and elegant, white wine. Look for green apple and lime fruit, some amazing crispness, and just enough oak to let you know you’re drinking high-end chardonnay.

How nice was this wine? I preferred the Califa to Pine Ridge’s Dijon Clones chardonnay, also at the tasting, and there was nothing wrong with the Dijon Clones. The Califa wasn’t intent on impressing me with the first sip; rather, it’s as if it said, “Take your time. Drink a little more, and really get to know me.”

Highly recommended (though, sadly, with what appears to limited availability). This is a Mother’s Day gift for any mom who loves wine and wants to be reminded why California is one of the world’s great wine regions.

How the cool kids find wine they like

How the cool kids find wine they likeThis is an incredibly clever graphical quiz from BuzzFeed that guides wine drinkers through the process of finding wine they will enjoy. What’s not to like about a system that asks your favorite emoticon, drunk text, and record album to help pick the right wine? Beats most of the advice from wine writers.

Having said that, some of us who didn’t grow up with 21st-century culture and smart phones, which emphasize pictures without text, might have trouble completing it. But a teenager should be able to help with the emoticons, and if you haven’t heard of “The Perks of Being a Wildflower” or “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter,” there is Hemingway. The section on pick a drinking buddy confused me: I don’t watch much TV, so I didn’t recognize several of the choices (though I did identify Beyonce). And what Toronto mayor Rob Ford, who gives new meaning to the term Great White North, was doing in the drinking buddy section was a puzzler.

How well it works is another story; the reader who tipped me to it said it sent her to malbec, which she tried and loved. The first time, it picked sweet riesling for me, which I enjoy, but not what I would have chosen. The second time it picked malbec, which I don’t much like, and insulted me in the process: “Your tastes are diverse but simple.” Maybe I need to bone up on emoticons. Or the quiz needs to refine its algorithm to include cava or rose.

Finally, how do I know that this process is hip and with it (besides that it’s on BuzzFeed)? The author, Justin Carissimo, blew off a couple of requests for an interview. It would have been nice to ask him how the quiz came about, and whether there is actually some science involved. No doubt he would have responded if I had been from Deadspin.

Wine competitions, judging, and blind luck

Wine competitions, judging, and blind luckOr, as the co-author of a new study told me: “Consumers should disregard results from wine competitions, because it’s a matter of luck whether a wine gets a gold medal.”

That’s the conclusion of Robert Hodgson, a winemaker and statistician whose paper (written with SMU’s Jing Cao) is called “Criteria for Accrediting Expert Wine Judges” and appears in the current issue of The Journal of Wine Economics. It says that those of us who judge wine competitions, including some of the world’s best-known wine experts, are ordinary at best. And most of us aren’t ordinary.

Because:

… [M]any judges who fail the test have vast professional experience in the wine industry. This leads to us to question the basic premise that experts are able to provide consistent evaluations in wine competitions and, hence, that wine competitions do not provide reliable recommendations of wine quality.

The report is the culmination of research started at the California State Fair wine competition at the end of the last decade. The competition’s organizers wanted to see if judging was consistent; that is, did the same wine receive the same medal from the same judge if the judge tasted it more than once during the event? The initial results, which showed that there was little consistency, were confirmed in the current study.

More than confirmed, actually. Just two of the 37 judges who worked the competition in 2010, 2011, and 2012 met the study’s criteria to be an expert; that is, that they gave the same wine the same medal (within statistical variation) each time they tasted it. Even more amazing, 17 of the 37 were so inconsistent that their ratings were statistically meaningless. In other words, presented with Picasso’s Guernica, most of the judges would have given a masterpiece of 20th century art three different medals if they saw it three different times.

“This is not a reflection on the judges as people, and I don’t mean that kind of criticism,” says Hodgson. “But the task assigned them as wine judges was beyond their capabilities.”

Which, given the nature of wine competitions, makes more sense than many doubters want to believe. Could the problem be with the system, and not the judges? Is it possible to be consistent when judges taste 100 wines day? Or when they taste flight after flight of something like zinfandel, which is notoriously difficult to judge under the best circumstances?

When I asked him this, Hodgson agreed, but added: “But we don’t see an alternative. But it is an inherent problem. You just want to see the competitions give the judges sufficient time to do it.”

Perhaps. But my experience, after a decade of judging regularly, is that the results seem better (allowing for this um-mathematical approach) when I judge fewer wines. That means that the competition is smaller, or that the organizers have hired more judges. Maybe that’s where the next line of study should go, determining if judging fewer wines leads to more consistent results.

Wine of the week: Zenato San Benedetto 2012

Zenato San BenedettoOne of the things that makes Italian wine so fascinating is its variety. You never know, literally, what you’ll find next. How else to explain the Zenato San Benedetto, a white wine made by a largish company that I had never heard of in more than 20 years of doing this?

That’s not unusual with Italian wine, where even the biggest companies are often little known. It’s also not unusual that their wines, like the Zenato ($12, sample, 13.1%), are worth knowing. This was a wonderfully pleasant surprise in what has been a spring of mosty dull, tiresome, and overpriced samples.

The wine is made with the trebbiano grape, the Italian version of the Gascon ugni blanc. But the flavors are different; none of the Gascon white grape, but white fruit (peaches?), a little citrus to flesh out the whole, and a soft, blossom-like aroma. It needs chilling, and an ice cube or two wouldn’t be out of place. If and when warm weather arrives in your part of the country, this is the perfect kind of wine.

It’s also an ideal wine to sip while contemplating this metaphysical question: Why do so many big wine companies in Europe making interesting cheap wine, while their counterparts in the states rarely do?

Winebits 331: Powdered alcohol, last call, and best quote ever

Winebits 331: Powdered alcohol, last call, and best quote ever

“Wonder what Palcohol will do to this crappy wine?”

? When real booze isn’t enough: Not happy with liquid alcohol? Then how about the powdered version, Palcohol, which has been approved for consumer use. It comes in seven flavors, including ?cosmopolitan, ? ?lemondrop, ? and ?powderita. ? Yum yum. No word yet on whether the company will release a pink moscato flavor, with appropriate Millennial marketing: “Dude, your wine is super lame — try this.” The Wine Curmudgeon’s cynicism notwithstanding, I checked with the blog’s offical liquor lawyer, who sighed (he does that a lot when I talk to him). His analysis: “I’ll bet it lasts about 10 minutes. A few years ago all the regulators got panicky over vaporized alcohol. Supposedly made you drunk in .05 seconds and they couldn’t figure out how to make it illegal. Turns out it didn’t work and nobody gave a damn. Maybe this will be the same way, but stand by for screams of alarm.”

? When regular closing time isn’t enough: How does 5:30 in the morning sound? That’s the plan for bars in several Montreal neighborhoods this summer, part of a scheme to ease congestion in those area when the bars close. The Wine Curmudgeon, despite more than a passing knowledge of drinking in Montreal (and where I have had some great Canadian wine), is still confused. Can there be a city where so many people are drinking so late into the night that last call resembles a shopping mall parking lot on Black Friday? If so, I need to get out more often. Or at least drink somewhere besides Dallas.

? If not the best quote ever, close to it: Hardy Wallace gained fame — and quite a bit of notoriety — when he won a gig several years ago as the official blogger for the Murphy-Goode wine brand. Wallace makes wine now, and notoriety still follows him. Consider this, from an interview with a San Francisco-area business newspaper: “It ?s overwhelming generality that vintners are doing a horrible job communicating with consumers. … You do not stand in a room and scream, ‘Buy this!’ and, ‘We sell this!’ ” Sounds like the Wine Curmudgeon on a rant, no?

“The most curmudgeonly of all curmudgeons”

Jeff Siegel WindmillWhich is a compliment. I think.

It comes from an old pal, Louise Owens, who offered many words of wisdom when I started doing this all those years ago. Louise runs a bar now, the famed Windmill Lounge in Dallas, and has been kind enough to host a cheap wine book signing from 5-7 p.m. on Wednesday. She’ll also have great cheap wine, to say nothing of the many legendary Windmill habitues who will be on hand.