Category:Wine rants

Dallas’ Lucia, restaurant wine, and doing it right

lucia restaurant wineRegular visitors here know that the Wine Curmudgeon dislikes restaurant wine almost as much as he dislikes oaky, alcoholic chardonnay. So it’s a pleasure — no, a duty — to let the world know when restaurant wine is done the right way.

That would be at Lucia in Dallas, an Italian-inspired restaurant in the city’s hip Bishop Arts neighborhood. Full disclosure: Jennifer Uygur, who owns Lucia with chef husband David, is a friend of mine. But, and she will be the first to tell you, I wouldn’t write this unless her wine list deserved high praise — almost all Italian, small but extensive, fairly priced, interesting, and missing the distributor-driven junk that even lists that get a Wine Spectator award have. It also has a Texas wine, which shows Jennifer’s commitment to doing things the right way.

Almost half the 50 wines cost around $50 or less, and the markups on most seem to be about two to one retail. This should be standard practice in the restaurant business, but it isn’t, something I have lamented many times. The list also reflects Jennifer’s wide-ranging taste, in which she wants not just quality, but something that is fun and different and a treat for her customers. What’s the point of wine otherwise?

We had two wines: First, Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle ($48 restaurant, purchased, 12%), made with a grape, pri blanc, from a region called Vallee D’Aoste, neither of which I had ever heard of. It’s a white with austere white fruit and lots of minerality, but it’s about more than a clean mouth feel. There is an almost chardonnay-like richness, which adds complexity and gives the wine something that’s as enjoyable as it is difficult to describe.

Second, Nervi Bianca ($52 restaurant, purchased, 12%), a white from Piedmont made with the erbaluce grape. Yes, I’ve heard of Piedmont, but the grape was a new one, and the region is much better known for its reds than its whites. The best way to describe the Nervi? Think of an Italian pinot grigio, but one with character, fresh white fruit, crispness, and minerality, absent the fussy tonic water aftertaste of pinot grigio.

Finally, the food was stunning. It reflects David Uygur’s Italian influences, his skill as a chef, and the idea that the food should be something for customers to eat and not something to help the chef get a TV show. Know two things: We had tajarin, thin, small egg noodles, with house-cured anchovies, toasted bread crumbs, and herbs that was one of the best things I’ve had in my life even though I don’t like anchovies; and there was no tomato sauce on the menu. None. At all. In Dallas, that’s close to heresy.

The Hosemaster of Wine, Riedel, and the new censorship

Hosemaster of Wine Riedel

Aug. 10, 2015 update: Riedel and the publisher of the British wine website that ran Washam’s post have come to a compromise, reports the drinks business trade magazine. No details were announced, but the publisher, Tim Atkin, and Riedel announced “the matter was settled.” The report also includes a ringing endorsement of free speech by Georg Riedel: “I am a true advocate of free speech and that is something I would never try to suppress.” I assume this was not sarcasm given the nature of the dispute.

Earlier this year, the Champagne trade group sued the Australian wine writer Champagne Jayne because the trade group said she wasn’t entitled to use the word Champagne. The wine business, and especially my writing colleagues, could have cared less. Maybe it was because it was in Australia. Maybe it was because they didn’t understand the danger. Or maybe they just didn’t care, because they were too busy doing business with the wine business.

This week, though, they should be paying attention. That’s when attorneys for Riedel, the wine glass company, sent a cease and desist letter to Ron Washam, who writes the Hosemaster of Wine blog. Washam, a former sommelier, writes wine-based satire that makes my rants look like a Sunday school Bible class. A recent target was Riedel, in which he called its glasses a fraud and its patriarch, Georg Riedel, a sexist flim flam man. The lawyer letter, claiming the piece wasn’t satire, that Washam had defamed Riedel, and that a retraction was required, quickly followed.

That Riedel would threaten to sue over something so silly speaks to how the wine business thinks it can control what goes on as wine writing leaves the print world. If Eric Asimov had written this in the New York Times, Riedel, company and man, would have blustered and foamed and forgotten about it. They certainly weren’t going to sue the Times, which actually has a landmark libel case named after it.

But Washam? He, like Champagne Jayne, is a different story. Asimov and most print writers are seen as separate and distinct by the wine business, because it understands print and it knows better than to mess with it. That’s not the case with Washam and those of us who aren’t print. We’re considered part of the wine business, and I get reminded of this every day. We who write about wine on the Internet don’t exist for consumers; we exist to sell product, and we’d better damn not forget it. Otherwise, lawyers send letters.

That Washam, Champagne Jayne, and everyone else who writes about wine are part of the media and deserve the same protections as “real” journalists is inconceivable to the wine business. Much of this is our own fault, given how so many of us are happy and fat shilling for wine companies. The last thing these wine writers want is to be tarred with the journalist brush and to be forced to offer honest evaluations about the products they tout. But that doesn’t absolve them of their responsibility to their readers or to their consciences.

I wrote this in February, and I’ll write it again. Big Business, under the guise of intellectual property law, sees an opportunity to silence its critics and censor what is written about its products. The first step in stopping this from continuing in wine is for everyone — from the Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate on down — to denounce the practice and to refuse to be part of it. Otherwise, the lawyers will send more letters, and eventually we’ll end up with wine writing where all the wines get 92 points and where we’re told we need to buy every wine accessory that’s advertised.

That will be a lot of fun, won’t it?

Let the computer write the wine reviews

computer-generated wine reviews

How am I supposed to know if there’s too much oak?

Could artificial intelligence make writers obsolete? Because I’m not the only one who wonders. Barbara Ehrenreich, writing in the New York Times, firmly believes that “the business of book reviewing could itself be automated and possibly improved by computers.”

So why not wine writing — computer-generated wine reviews?

This would solve any number of problems, not the least of which is that winemakers wouldn’t have to deal with people like me. I had a brief email discussion recently with an annoyed producer who insisted that her wines didn’t taste the way I described them; she certainly would have been better off with WineNet than what Ehrenreich calls a “wet, carbon-based thinking apparatus” with self-awareness and a sense of obligation to its readers.

The last time I wrote about this, a company called Narrative Science had made significant inroads in taking disparate facts and turning them into a readable narrative. Unfortunately, it seems to have veered elsewhere, developing a product that “creates new revenue opportunities by transforming data into engaging content that can be productized and monetized.” This approach has little to do with writing, since there is money involved.

Still, much work has been done. TechCrunch reported last month that robot writers are all the rage in Silicon Valley, while a data scientist named Tony Fischetti has written that Markov chains can be used to simulate what he calls the “exercise in pretentiousness” that is a wine review. The concept of a Markov chain, which deals with probability, is far beyond my math skills, but Fischetti used 9,000 reviews from the Wine Spectator to write a program that came up with tasting notes that are no worse than most, including: “Quite rich, but stopping short of opulent, this white sports peach and apricot, yet a little in finesse” and “this stylish Australian Cabernet is dark, deep and complex, ending with a polished mouthful of spicy fruit and plenty of personality.”

Meanwhile, a wine producer in France, using N-Gram analysis (also beyond my math skills, but apparently related to word order) also thinks it’s possible to generate wine reviews without a wine writer. Both approaches seem to jive with what I wrote last time, that an artificial intelligence, working with a wine term database and the proper algorithm, could scrape together effective reviews. Probably even scores, too.

I just hope, if and when this puts me out of business, that someone will remember that I saw it coming. Maybe I can monetize the blog that way.

Image courtesy of Techbrarian, using a Creative Commons license

Money magazine’s not very cheap cheap wine story

cheap wineOne would think, after almost a decade of writing about cheap wine, winning awards, writing a critically-acclaimed book, and seeing the blog annually ranked as one of the most influential wine sites on the Internet, that the Wine Curmudgeon would have made an impression on the wine world. Apparently not, if this week’s Money magazine cheap wine story is any indication.

Mark Edward Harris asked four experts to list their “favorite bottle bargains,” and the results were so depressing that I almost gave up wine writing on the spot. The selections, save for those from “Wine for Dummies” impresario Mary Ewing-Mulligan (who I know and have judged with), reinforced every wine stereotype I have been fighting against for years. It’s as if the cheap wine revolution that has given us better wine for less money never happened, and it’s still 1999.

This is not to denigrate the other three experts, all of whom are immensely qualified and probably know infinitely more about their specialties than I could ever imagine knowing. But they don’t know more about cheap wine than I do, and their selections showed that. Among the problems with the recommendations that weren’t Ewing-Mulligan’s:

? Almost half of the other 42 wines cost $20 or more, ignoring that 95 percent of us will never spend more than $20 for a bottle of wine. Granted, Money’s readers may well be in that five percent, but if you’re looking for bargains, shouldn’t the editors know what a bargain is?

? The implication that wine that doesn’t cost more than $20 isn’t worth drinking. I’ll offer the writer, his editors, and the other three experts the same challenge I always make when I see something like this: Let’s taste the best cheap wines blind against more expensive wines, and you see if you can tell which is which.

? One rose, and a three-year-old rose that is apparently not in any U.S. retail stores, if Wine Searcher is to be believed. How a list of bargain wines could leave out rose, the greatest bargain in wine, is astounding.

? The usual wine geek choices that only wine geeks know about and that most of us can’t buy, including three Austrian wines and a Greek. I live in the ninth largest city in the country, with terrific retailers locked in death grip competition, and none of those four wines are available here.

? Almost half of the other 42 selections came from France and California, ignoring what has happened in South America, Australia, Oregon, Washington, Spain, and southern Italy over the past two decades.

And I wasn’t the only one who was upset. The New York Times’ Eric Asimov, hardly a champion of cheap wine, didn’t like it, either. And, for some reason, one of the experts was allowed to recommend a wine made by the winery that he works for. Has a major U.S. publication sunk so far that no one at Money sees that as a conflict of interest? Or is it OK to do it because it’s only wine?

Want a real list of bargain wines? Then check out the 2015 $10 Hall of Fame or the story I wrote for the Bottom Line Personal magazine. Or, since I don’t like to criticize without offering an alternative, my list of 10 bargain wines, $12 or less, that Money should have included. It’s a PDF, so you can print it and take it the next time you go wine shopping.

Wine and sex

wine and sexThe Wine Curmudgeon, being a sort of academic these days, understands the need to publish, garner attention for your institution, and prove how wonderful you are. That’s the way the Ivory Tower works in the 21st century, and I’m more than willing to do my bit. But that still doesn’t excuse this kind of behavior — yet another wine and sex study showing that wine and sex make people happy.

This one comes from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, where researchers discovered that booze and sex rated highest on the study’s ?pleasure scale, ? beating out volunteering, religion, and childcare. Shocking news, I know.

To its credit, the study looks for legitimacy by noting that governments, faced with policy decisions, want to find out what makes its citizens happy. But even the most loopheaded government (do you hear me, Texas?) has to know that drinking and sex make people happy, while doing housework and being sick, which ranked low on the scale, don’t. So claiming public policy benefit isn’t quite what it seems.

Six years ago, I banned wine health news from the blog, after the infamous Italian study that revealed what every teenage boy has known for as long as there have been teenage boys: If you get a girl drunk, she is more likely to have sex with you, as the noted researcher William Shakespeare discussed. Apparently, little has changed in the wine and health world in those six years.

Finally, this study has been knocking around the cyber-ether for three years. That it showed up a couple of weeks ago when I was looking for something else speaks to the power of Google in determining what we find on the Internet, and that Google thinks we want stories about wine and sex. And yes, I have used the term wine and sex five times in this post to make Google happy; isn’t that what content providers are supposed to do?

Ain’t the Internet grand?

Restaurant wine prices in Europe

restaurant wine prices in EuropeThe email from my friend visiting Spain not only waxed poetic about the wine, but about the prices: “Talk about cheap wine. Beautiful wine for ?12, and the most expensive bottle was ?24.” In other words, restaurant wine prices in Europe were U.S. retail prices — which is unheard of in the States.

This is not unusual. When my brother was in Sicily, he marveled at both the quality and the prices in restaurants, drinking Cusumano for more or less what I pay for it at a Dallas liquor store. I’ve seen the same thing when I’ve traveled to Europe; as one sommelier at a very high-end restaurant owned by a famous Spanish chef told me: “Why would we want to charge as much as you do in the States? Then people won’t order as much wine.”

How is this possible? After all, talk to most restaurateurs in the U.S., and they make it sound as if they’ll go out of business if they don’t charge $30 for a wine that cost them $8:

? Europe’s on-gong recession, and especially in southern Europe. If there is 25 percent unemployment, it doesn’t make much economic sense to overcharge for wine.

? The idea that wine is part of dinner, which is the way Europeans have always seen wine, and not something in addition to dinner, the way Americans — and especially American restaurateurs — have always seen wine.

? Better wine list sensibilities, where the restaurant sells wine to drink and not to impress high-dollar patrons or wine snobs. Or, as Jacques Pepin told me, why would anyone want to pay for Bordeaux when you can drink the local wine, usually of high quality, and spend less money?

? No three-tier system, which may be the most important reason. In Europe, there isn’t a distributor getting its cut, which can add as much as 20 percent to the cost of wine. The restaurant can order directly from the producer, who is often local, and enjoys supply chain efficiencies that we can only dream about here.

The Wine Curmudgeon as hipster: Dude, he likes rose

rose

I totally get the resemblance… hat and beard and even glasses.

The news is official, from not just Deadspin and Details, which are about as hipster as post-modern media get, but from Manhattan sommeliers — and even their more hip Brooklyn brethren: “Dude, we’re drinking rose.” “Bro, you are so right.”

This is so exciting that the Wine Curmudgeon, given his long love and advocacy of rose, is going to grow one of those hipster beards and wear one of those hipster hats. Because, dude, rose is freakin’ awesome. Fist bump here.

On the one hand, I should be thrilled that the hipsters have embraced rose, because anyone embracing rose is a good thing in the fight for quality cheap wine, given that it’s almost impossible to find a $10 pink wine that isn’t worth drinking. Plus, that people who may not know wine, who usually drink craft beer or artisan cocktails made with pickle brine, are now drinking rose is something to be much appreciated.

On the other hand, why is this trend — any wine trend, really — only official if a Manhattan sommelier approves of it? Why can’t it be a trend if a cranky, middle-aged ex-sportswriter who lives in the middle of the country approves of it? And, regardless of the personal insult to me, why isn’t it a trend because rose sales have been spiking upward for a couple of years — without any help from people who work at what the Details article called a Brooklyn “fauxhemian” hangout?

Just chill, dude.

Maybe so. The Wine Curmudgeon has been known to visit Manhattan (Brooklyn, even). So, in the spirit of rose-mance, I will bring rose with me the next time I go, and not the usual Provencal pink the hipsters know. How about South African rose? Or Spanish rose? Or even Texas rose? Because, bro, I want to, like, be totally cool with that.