Category:A Featured Post

Louie Canelakes, 1955-2013

Louie Canelakes, 1955-2013I’ve met bankers and ballplayers, business and political types, and even a few reasonably well-known actors and musicians over the course of my writing career. But none of them were larger than life the way Louie Canelakes was larger than life.

Louie died over the weekend, news that was as unexpected as it was unbelievable. Institutions don’t die; they last forever, and they give the rest of us the strength and the wherewithal to get through the day. Once, when I was enduring about as rough a patch as someone like me can go through, one of the things that kept me going each week was that if I made it to Friday, I could drink beer at Louie’s. Most of the time, that worked.

Louie ran a bar in Dallas (called Louie’s, of course), which doesn’t sound like much. But in this town, most of which was dry in one form or another until a couple of years ago, that speaks volumes. And that he did it for almost 30 years is even more telling, given that Dallas churns out bars, restaurants, and clubs the way teenage girls get band crushes.

Louie had one rule — if you had the money to drink at his bar, you could drink at his bar. Otherwise, he didn’t care who you were. It was a neighborhood place, but the neighborhood was all encompassing. The rich drank there (the mother of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who came in her limo, was at the bar next to me one night), as did assorted newspapermen and TV reporters, and even the powerful and famous, including former Dallas mayor Laura Miller.

One of Louie’s customers was one of the most despicable human beings I’ve ever known, the kind of guy who gets into trouble with people who hurt other people for a living. One day, a couple of leg breakers showed up looking for the guy, and Louie sent them away. I asked him about it, knowing that Louie didn’t much like the guy, either. “Siegel,” he said, because he called everyone by their last name in that Midwestern high school way he had, “he’s my customer. You tell me what I’m supposed to do.”

Louie and I didn’t meet until we got to Dallas, but the joke was that we had grown up together. He was from Waukegan, north of Chicago, and I’m from nearby Deerfield. We were in high school at about the same time, and my mom worked for the Waukegan school district and ate at his father’s Waukegan restaurant. That meant we shared an affliction for the Chicago Cubs and saw politics as a spectator sport, which gave us plenty of giggles in Dallas.

Louie is the only person I’ve ever lost a cheap wine argument to, which should tell you everything you need to know about how much he loved to argue and how he ran the business. Louie’s, for all its strengths — some of the best food in Dallas, bar or no, and easily the best-made drinks in town — serves crappy wine. Once, when I was feeling adventurous or stupid or both, because Louie was famous for ignoring customer advice, I offered to help re-do the list so he could serve better — but still cheap — wine. “Siegel,” he said, and I can hear him growling at me as I write this, “why would I want to to do that? What I’m doing is working. Why should I change?”

I am not a sentimental man, and rarely nostalgic. But I can’t imagine Dallas without Louie, and I don’t want to. So I’ll play this, and see if I can find an Old Style or two, and remember. Because people still live on earth in the acts of goodness they performed, and Louie performed enough to put the rest of us to shame.

Winebits 307: Wine cities, Wine Spectator, wine revolution

? More wine in Dallas, please: The Wine Curmudgeon has noted many times that Dallas residents treat wine as if they were afraid of it, and now we have statistical evidence to support my observation. A Harris Poll found that Dallas residents are the least likely of anyone in the country’s 10 biggest metro areas to drink wine, and that we lead the country in not drinking any alcohol at all. No wonder we spend way too much time obsessing over the Cowboys. Obviously, I have my work cut out for me, and will continue to urge responsible cheap wine drinking on the masses. It’s the least I can do.

? Some wines are more equal than others: Kyle Schlachter at Colorado Wine Press, who has much more patience with the Winestream Media than I have, reports on what appears to be the Wine Spectator’s double standard for choosing wines to review. The magazine has said it won’t review some wines (in this case, from Colorado) if they they aren’t widely available. On the other hand, it recently reviewed several wines from France that weren’t widely available (10 cases or less in the U.S.). Schlachter seemed surprised by this contradiction, but that’s only because he hasn’t been dealing with this kind of hypocrisy for as long as I have. The Spectator does what the Spectator does; that’s why it is the Spectator. And why it has a Curmudgie named after it.

? Democratizing wine: David White of the Terroirist has a fine take on the changes in the wine business, led by consumers who make up their own minds about what they want to drink. He quotes Jancis Robinson, the preeminent European critic: ” ?No longer are wine critics and reasonably well-known wine writers like me sitting on a pedestal, haughtily handing down our judgments. Nowadays ? [consumers] can make up their own minds. That ?s altogether a lot healthier. ? It’s also intriguing, from my perspective, that some of the best and most well-known critics in the world see this change and approve of it. That means they have the well being of wine and wine drinkers at heart, and not whether they continue to be important and famous.

Dallas’ mayor pays too much for wine — where’s the cheap wine book when he needs it?

“I promise, I promise — I’ll check with Siegel next time. Really.”

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings got caught in one of those annoying political tweaks last week when a local TV station reported that he spent $4,500 of taxpayer money for three bottles of French wine last summer at a dinner for several Korean Air executives. The wine was Chateau Haut Brion, a red Bordeaux usually regarded as one of the world’s best.

Rawlings, to his credit, has since paid for the wine. He also had a great reason for buying it: The mayor misread the wine list, and said he thought the Haut Brion was just $150 a bottle. That’s certainly understandable; even the Wine Curmudgeon might have ordered it at that kind of discount.

Still, this leaves unanswered the larger question. Rawlings, who may have aspirations for higher office, ignored the current political climate, where government spending is seen as unnecessary at best and evil at worst. And, to compound the problem, the mayor spent the money on wine, hardly viewed by most Dallasites as a legitimate expense at any time.

Fortunately, I’m here to help. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I sometimes offered the mayor my particular brand of advice when I did a column for Dallas’ Advocate magazine, and that we met, years ago, when he ran Pizza Hut and I interviewed him for a story for the legendary Piza Today magazine.)

At the least, I’ll dispatch a cheap wine book immediately — signed, even, and at no charge. And I’m more than willing to serve as Rawlings’ wine advisor so this sort of thing doesn’t happen again (for a modest fee, of course). For one thing, given my crankiness toward overpriced wine and the way restaurants jack up wine prices, I would have double-checked the Haut Brion, refusing to believe that any restaurant would sell it for so little. I also understand about middle-aged eyes and dark dining rooms.

For another, I can have several alternate suggestions ready at a moment’s notice, cellphone sommelier-style. “WC, I’ll get skewered if I pay $1,500 for the Haut Brion.” “Not to worry, Mr. Mayor. Look and see if they have any Gran Reserva Rijoa on the list. Or some higher-end Paso Robles red blends. And you can never go wrong with Ridge.”

I’m also willing to work the education angle. The government spokesman who defended the $4,500 purchase has much to learn, saying, “You cannot bring a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to an airline CEO and call it a business lunch.” Obviously, he has never read the $10 Hall of Fame; we can get him straightened out on that high prices equals quality wine thing in no time at all.

Finally, the Dallas media, save for the station that broke the story, seemed unconcerned about the spending gaffe, and one particularly snarky news outlet — so annoying it’s not even worth linking to — was offended that someone questioned the need to spend $4,500 for quality wine. How Dallas of them — is it any wonder we don’t drink more wine here?

The 10 things an author worries about after writing a wine book

Not that those of us who do these things are paranoid, but. …

1. The truck carrying the books will crash on I-57 in Illinois, and 12 boxes will be scattered across various Midwestern cornfields.

2. All of the friends you asked to review the book will rip it.

3. No one will show up at any of your book signings, and you’ll sit there. And sit there. And sit there.

4. The only good review will come from someone who doesn’t like you, and you’ll be convinced that it’s a joke because they misspelled your name.

5. You’ll wake up in the middle of the night, sweating, after dreaming about the “I Love Lucy” episode where she and Ethel don’t make a million dollars with their homemade salad dressing scheme.

6. Someone will rate the book 1/2 star on Amazon, calling it the dumbest thing he has ever read.

7. No one will will write a comment calling the 1/2-star review the dumbest thing she has ever read.

8. You’ll forget to send a copy of the book to the Library of Congress and the copyright office, and someone will claim you stole their idea.

9. The government shutdown was not a clash of politics and ideologies, but part of a plot to prevent you from selling books.

10. The book won’t make any money, and you’ll have to get a real job.


The opportunity cost of wine, and why consumers don’t want to pay it

thorntonIn other words, why most of us don’t learn more about wine — because it’s too much trouble, even if doing so would help us buy better wine for less money.

That’s one of the key points in an intriguing new book by an Eastern Michigan economist, James Thornton, called “American Wine Economics: An Exploration of the U.S. Wine Industry.” The book looks at the economic side of the wine business — something that’s rarely seen given the Winestream Media’s emphasis on toasty and oaky.

“I didn’t really see any systematic examination of wine the way an economist would do it,” says Thornton, who started his academic career studying the economics of medical care. “So, as I was becoming interested in wine, it became a fascinating field of study.”

Hence opportunity cost. Everyone understands the money cost of a good or service, but economists argue that’s not the only cost that determines whether we buy something. There is also opportunity cost — how much it costs us in time, aggravation, and the like, to make a purchase.

In wine, that means not just what we pay for a bottle, but also how much time we want to invest so we can learn more and make better decisions about what we buy. It’s something that happens all the time in other areas, like buying a car. Almost everyone does some research, whether it’s clicking an Internet link or asking a friend about a certain model or a local dealership. And everyone test drives cars, which is about as aggravating and time consuming an experience as possible.

In this, it’s part of what Thornton describes as the theory of rational consumer behavior, which says we want to make the best possible decision. Except when it comes to wine.

“I’d have to speculate here, because I don’t know that there are any studies on this,” says Thornton, a beer drinker who married a wine drinker and came over from the dark side. “But it’s sort of intimidating. You hear all that garbage growing up, that it’s a mortal sin to drink sweet wine, or that you can only have certain wines with friends. And you don’t want to learn, because it is so intimidating. So everyone believes you have to be either an idiot or Robert Parker.”

In other words, academic support for something the Wine Curmudgeon has argued for as long as I have been arguing: The wine business, given the constitutionally protected three-tier distribution system and aided by its allies in the Winestream Media, has no incentive to lower the opportunity cost for wine. The money comes in anyway. Hence wine labels that don’t inform, wine education that is almost non-existent, winespeak, and even scores. And it’s why people buy crappy cheap wine and don’t care, because the opportunity cost is probably higher than the money cost.

The good news, says Thornton, is that the Internet is reducing the opportunity cost of wine. It’s easier than ever to find reviews, ratings, and information about wine, and especially from a crowd-sourced site like CellarTracker. Over time, that should make it easier for consumers to pay opportunity costs, and should help all of us drink better wine.

Wine of the week: McManis Petite Sirah 2011

McManis Petite Sirah 2011Wine competitions, regardless of some deserved criticism over the past couple of years, are the great levellers of the wine business. Since every wine is judged blind, price, appellation, and critical acclaim don’t matter, and it’s difficult for judges to vote their prejudices. Yes, lots of expensive wines do well, but so do lots of cheap wines — often to the chagrin of the people who give them the medals.

Few things make the Wine Curmudgeon happier than to find quality cheap wine that earns big awardsl at wine competitions, and especially at the best known. That was the case this year, when the McManis ($11, sample, 13.5%) won a double gold medal at the San Francisco International Wine Competition, perhaps the most prestigious of them all. The McManis was in fine company — double golds also went to a $40 California pinot noir, a $125 Napa cabernet sauvignon, and a $50 Paso Robles red blend.

And why not? McManis, as my old pal Dave Falchek regularly reminds me, is at least the equal of Bogle, one of my cheap wine favorites and a fixture in the $10 Hall of Fame. The petite sirah shows why: a little earthiness and lots of dark fruit, not too overdone, and, most importantly, varietally correct, This is petite sirah that tastes like petite sirah, something that too many producers no longer bother with. Drink this with dinner as the weather gets cooler and don’t be afraid to open a bottle or two at Thanksgiving. A candidate for the 2014 Hall of Fame, since it retails for $10 in much of the country.

Winebits 306: Grape shortage, Bogle, wine labels

? So much for the experts: Last week’s report that the world was facing an imminent grape shortage and a corresponding leap in prices sent the wine world into a minor fluff. Eventually, common sense prevailed and the news was discounted for what it was — at the very least odd and at the very most suspicious. There is no grape shortage, and the best reporting on the subject was done, as usual, by Lew Perdue at Wine Industry Insight. Stacy Finz at the Chronicle in San Francisco contributed a very sensible piece as well. Most telling was this bit in Finz’s article: “The report’s authors, Tom Kierath and Crystal Wang of Morgan Stanley’s Australian consumer and beverage branch, declined to be interviewed.” My experience, after some 30 years as a reporter, is that when someone doesn’t want to defend what they wrote or said, then there isn’t much reason to pay attention to it.

? Wine drinkers know a good thing: Bogle, the $10 wine that has been in the cheap wine Hall of Fame as long as there has been a Hall of Fame, continues to sell lots and lots and lots of wine. Shanken News Daily, the web news service (and part of the Wine Specator empire — oh delicious irony), reports that the company’s sales rose nearly 16 percent in 2012 to 1.75 million cases. That makes Bogle one of the biggest dozen or so producers in the country, and it has almost doubled its sales in the past 18 months since I interviewed Ryan Bogle. The Shanken article credits the quality of the Bogle wines for the label’s success, though in a very Winestream Media way, citing points — “more than 30 scores of 87 points or higher from Wine Spectator” — as proof of quality. Though, to be honest, as annoying as that is, I don’t know why I would expect anything different.

? An easier to read wine label, please: Lou Marmon, one of the best wine writers that not enough people know about, has a fine take on the foolishness that passes for wine labels these days. “Clearly front labels are critical to wine marketing,” he writes, “but is there any reason why they cannot be more accurate and informative?” Marmon details all the agonies involved in reading a wine label, whether misleading terms like “old vines,” cute labels, and variation in alcohol content. And, he points out, that doesn’t include the difference between European and U.S. labels, which take the subject in another, albeit equally confusing, direction.