Friday, July 29, 2011

Brain Food 7/29/11

Missed yesterday because I was home taking care of a sick wife.

1. Amazing story. First American to make Grand Cru Burgundy. And he did it BEFORE HE TURNED 30.

2. Good article at Terroirist concerning the oversimplification of marketing to Milennials. Mr. White is correct - all those things he points out are indeed flat-out incorrect assumptions. The dumbing-down of wine theory for this new generation is pretty insulting, frankly. And gross.

3. I have a friend with cancer, and this seems about accurate. Treatment is more complicated than you think.

4. A fun list of words that you should know, from the New York Times. I’m about half and half. Let me know if you want to make some flash cards and have a study session.

5. Great article on parenting - not only on what you need to be a parent, but on how to enjoy it. That is to say, DON’T GET OVERLY ROMANTIC. It’s WORK. My experience of being a parent has been overwhelmingly positive, but it’s certainly been a challenging adjustment, turning what seem at first like burdens into pleasures. It requires a major shift in perspective, and it doesn’t happen overnight. Good advice.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Brain Food 7/27/11

This is what I've been consuming today.

1. This article argues that while Atheists are skeptics by nature, they are also obligated to hold positive speculative beliefs, because of course you must speculate in order to propose testable hypotheses...the very meat and potatoes of the science. “By refusing to endorse any speculative explanation for the universe, you’re saying that the existence of the universe is mysterious. But with that, you’ve handed the whole topic over to the religious mystery-mongers.”

2. I have been recently obsessed with Inside the Actors Studio, which I’ve been watching on YouTube virtually all day while doing this dull project at work. It makes me wish desperately that I had more time for film. Here are a couple of my favorites so far:

Robin Williams
Julianne Moore
Anthony Hopkins

3. I’m not currently an investor, but I will be soonish, and most of my intuitions that I’m willing to bet on are tech stocks. This is a short piece on Warren Buffet’s different perspective.

4. A professor of mine wrote a short article about a longer article that I sent his way, which argued that a degree in the humanities (specifically philosophy) is a great prerequisite to working in technology.

5. I really like Freakonomics Radio. This one is interesting, and features a writer I this is very interesting (and unconventional), James Altucher, whose worthwhile blog is here.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

How Bottle Prices are Set

Great article here by Terry Theise, a wine writer and importer, about how the cost of wine is determined. He makes two great points that you don’t hear too often - first, that “Those $6.99 bottles actually represent poor value, whereas a trade-up to $9-10 gives you twice the wine, because the fixed costs of freight and duties are the same.” That is, because importation costs are roughly fixed (it doesn’t really cost much more to ship wine that will end up being $5 a bottle than it does to ship wine that will sell for $100), spending just a few more dollars on an (imported) bottle can get you much better wine, or really, much more wine for you money, since a higher percentage is actually being spent on the juice, not on importation and distribution costs. Those costs can make the USA retail price exceed 200% of what it was originally sold for by the producer. Think about that next time you’re trying to decide between a $6 and a $12 dollar bottle (or a $12 and a $20). Second, when you buy from the big guys, you pay a premium for advertising, and when you buy from new wineries, you pay a premium for their startup costs. You can get more juice for your dollar, Theise argues, by “betting against the crowd,” especially by buying from small, family-based Old World wineries (that own their land and don't pay for anything but upkeep). Overall, this fits my experience - the best values I’ve found have been from small French producers. This is a good article, and a great little primer on wine economics - absolutely worth a read.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Things Wine Newbies SHOULD DO.

This is a companion piece to a post i wrote previously on Things a Wine Newbie SHOULD NOT do. Come to find out, writing about what NOT to do was easier, for some reason. Giving positive advice is more difficult, and as a result my list is shorter. I will update if I think of anything else. The generalities about what I assume make a “newbie” are listed in my previous post, which again is here.

Things Wine Newbies SHOULD DO

1. DO taste wine blind, especially with people who know more and are better tasters than you. But why blind? Because once you get a basic feel for varietal or regional characteristics, you can get lazy. Having to taste wine without knowing certain details forces you to pay attention to the minutia, making you a better taster, able to notice (and appreciate) the subtleties in the wine you drink. It's also a fun thing to do with small groups of people who are interested in wine. While a lot has been written about wine tasting (this is an example), it is a thing best learned, I think, by apprenticeship.

1a. While you do this, DO take notes. Physical sensations like taste can be difficult to remember, and words can help. Plus, standardizing the language you use can help you to figure out which wines you prefer to others.

2. DO decant. Especially those young, ageable reds you buy off the shelves, and normally pop and pour. Most good wine improves with decanting, especially young red wine, as it takes the edge off of the harsh and overly astringent tannins, and usually results in a fuller, more balanced, and more complex nose. If you don’t believe me, next time you open a bottle, plan a bit in advance and do an experiment (decanter not required). Pour a glass, cork the bottle, and wait an hour. Then pour another, recork, and wait another hour. Repeat a third time, then wait again and pour a final glass, and taste all four glasses against each other. You’ll be amazed at the differences between the glasses - blind, you’d easily think they were different wines. And I bet you’ll prefer one of the ones that’s had time to breathe.

3. DO expand your palate. Try new stuff. All the time. Especially if you're young like me, spend your early wine years trying everything you can get your hands on, finding the stuff that you REALLY like (not buying a bunch of high-scoring bottles to save for 10 years before you taste them), then you can spend your years of wine maturity buying that really good stuff, not wondering or worrying if you could get better (subjective) bang for your buck somewhere else.

4. DO challenge your presuppositions. Think you don’t like, for instance, Chardonnay? Walk into a wine store, find a knowledgeable clerk, describe what you don’t like about Chardonnay (or Merlot, or Riesling, or pinot noir, or whatever) and then ask him or her to please recommend a Chardonnay that they think avoids all the characteristics you described (my own initial dislike of Chardonnay came about by tasting a few that could be described as tasting like a bunch of sawdust floating in a vat of movie theatre popcorn butter with a sprinkling of liquid smoke). Challenge your preconceived notions, and find new things.

5. DO buy some nice wine glasses. This is obvious, but some people don't. Crystal, or at the very least good glass, with a cut rim and a big, convex bowl (where the rim has a smaller circumference than the widest part of the you can swirl). You really only need red wine glasses - they're even fine for sparkling wine, and don't let anyone tell you different.

6. DO eat wine with food, and learn something about wine and food pairing. I heartily recommend this book. Wine IS food (a luxurious food item certainly, but food nonetheless), and should be treated as such. Like enjoys like. Additionally, one of the great pleasures in having a wine collection is having a perfect bottle to go with a special meal you're preparing (or you've ordered at a restaurant).

Update: Here is a great little video by Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon vineyards, who adds a couple of very good points to this list, namely, try wines in context (i.e. try several similar wines together), taste in a group (but don't let others' opinions influence your own too much), and don't think you can understand a (great) wine in 5 minutes.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Déjà Vu for the Proximal Senses, AKA Olfactory Transportation

Had a funny experience the other day. They say the sense of smell is the sense most intimately connected to memory - and I believe it. Have you ever had that experience when a smell reminds you of a place? Not just smelling some thing in wine, e.g. "this wine smells of strawberry" or blueberry or lemon starburst or green beans or sticky toffee pudding or moldy hummus (no joke - come to think of it, I really shouldn’t have told the wine rep), but when you catch a whiff of a scent that sort of transports you to some place you've got locked in your memory. I've revisited my great grandmother's old kitchen in this fashion (haven't been there since I was about 10), my grandparents’ bathroom, and a good friend's house, among other places. With objects it’s less profound, but even more common - I can’t count the number of childhood treats I’ve been reminded of since I’ve started seriously tasting wine. It's a sort of déjà vu for the proximal senses. A fascinating feeling. But while again I've obviously smelled things in wine, plums, prunes, my wife's hairspray, etc., and occasionally gotten tiny doses of that fun olfactory déjà vu feeling, nothing that I can recall that was not in fact wine has ever reminded (in the same visceral sense) of wine. Until the other day. Anyway, on the bus a little while ago I opened a tin of Altoids and got hit with that blast of menthol, which is normal, but for some reason totally piqued my sense memory and gave me a curiously strong (get it?) sensation of fresh mint leaves, which immediately sort of transported me to red wine. I "remembered" a wine smelling strongly of menthol...though I rarely identify that characteristic in red wines, and never so clearly (so it wasn't a particular wine I was "remembering"). Really fascinating, and really puzzling, but fun. Amazing how our minds can create complex compound sensations out of disparate atomic parts. It’s days like these that I’m thankful for my cerebral cortex.

Monday, July 4, 2011

How to get 20 bottles of legit wine for <$200

Aren't they pretty? And don't they look a little funny? Since they're all the same size, it might be difficult to tell at first, but these are half bottles, containing 375ml of wine instead of a "full" 750ml. I ordered them from Half Wit Wines, a cleverly-named internet wine store entirely devoted to the sale of half bottles of wine. The novelty!

Half bottles are perfect for my wife and I because we don't often want to drink more than a half bottle per night, and if we do open a full bottle, we usually drink a third or a half, and get less pleasure out of it the next night(s), be it due to oxidation, drinking it with food that's a less-than-perfect pairing, or simply from the boredom that comes with repetition. So we get pretty much 75% of the utility (pleasure) out of the first half of the bottle, and only 25% out of the second half of the actual wine. By buying half bottles, I think we can avoid this imbalance (The only downside is that it's very educational to taste wine over a day or two or three, to observe the oxidation effects upon the wine). But in addition, half bottles allow us to try more stuff on the same budget. They're how I could manage to get 19 different wines, not a single stinker among them (at least by reputation - though I'm a little worried about the ullage level on the Vouvray), for under $200 bucks ($186, to be exact-every single bottle I ordered was on sale, that is, selling for half or less than half the MSRP of the normal 750ml bottle). Got some really killer deals.

They are, from left to right, with prices...

Ridge California Red Santa Cruz Mountains 2004 $13.00
Ridge Estate Red Santa Cruz Mountains 2006 $15.00
Ridge Geyserville California Red 2005 $9.00
Ridge Lytton Springs Red California Dry Creek 2006 $13.00
Lopez de Heredia Vina Cubillo Rioja Crianza 2005 $15.00
Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant 2004 $9.00
Bonny Doon Syrah Le Pousseur 2005 $6.00
Chateau de Bellevue Lussac Saint-Emilion 2005 $10.00
Chateau du Hureau Saumur-Champigny Rouge Loire Valley 2006 $6.00
Chateau la Coustarelle Cahors Grand Cuvee Prestige 2004 $7.00
Joseph Drouhin Chablis-Montmains Premier Cru 2006 $9.00
Domaine Herve Azo Chablis Premier Cru Vau de Vey 2006 $7.00
Marc Bredif Vouvray 2006 $7.00
Lucien Crochet Sancerre 2006 $9.00
Lucien Crochet Sancerre Blanc La Croix du Roy 2006 $9.00
Lucien Crochet Sancerre Le Chene 2006 $9.00
Chateau Clos l'Eglise Cotes de Castillon 2003 $12.00
Chateau Ferriere Margaux Grand Cru Classe 2003 $15.00
Domaine de Beausejour Chinon Rouge Loire Valley 2004 $6.00

So the other night when I typed "half bottles of wine" into Google, the Half Wit Wines website was the first hit, both sponsored and unsponsored. The second hit was this article, written by Lettie Teague, a wine columnist for The Wall Street Journal. While I usually like Teague's writing, I found this column to be poorly argued and a bit insipid. This is an excellent example of Wine Critics Reasoning Poorly, about which I will write more in the future.

Her objection to half bottles is this: (I'm going to simply roll my eyes at the objection that restaurant staff will make fun of you for bringing one with you when you dine) they age the wine faster, since in a smaller bottle, the oxygen to wine ratio is greater, thus causing oxidation (aging) at a more rapid pace. It's not explicit that she sees this as a negative quality, but it seems clear from the context that this is a criticism of the half bottle format. However, it's about as toothless a criticism as I can think of. The first and most obvious reply to such an objection is that it is not necessarily true. Looking at the bottles and their level of ullage, some have very small amounts of air floating around it there, and it doesn't seem that her claim about air to wine ratios can carry any deductive certainty to it. It all depends upon the machines filling the bottles. Secondly, you could employ a philosophical move known as "the incredulous stare." Perhaps you can accompany it by a flippant "So what?" (if you use this in the field, your opponent will most likely sputter and fail to respond meaningfully). You may then expand, "in a wine culture where 95% of bottles purchased are consumed within one hour (please someone find where this statistic originated, because of course now that I need it, I cannot), what does it matter that a bottle which would normally age for, say, ten years, will only age for five?" This is key: virtually no one (in America, at least) ages wine. And when they do, it's virtually never long enough for even accelerated bottle aging to negatively affect the wine. In other words, the contingent of persons, or really of wines, that's she's referring to with this critique is vanishingly small. So, don't buy older-vintage half bottles, and for those of you who want to age wine: buy regular and large-format bottles.

But I could be wrong. I'll have to drink the wine, and then I'll let you know.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

How to Drink World-Class Wine Without Paying World-Class Prices

This is a picture of the latest additions to my (very small) cellar. Through my winemaker uncle I have access to pretty much unlimited wine storage in their facility in Portland (granted, it's three hours away, but all the better to forget about the bottles for a few years, and hell, it's FREE). From left to right, they are:

2004 Dominus Estate
2008 Christian Moreau Chablis Grand Cru
2005 Produtorri del Barbaresco Pajè
2005 Produttori del Barbaresco Moccagatta
2008 Nicolas Joly Savennières Les Clos Sacrés
2009 Ridge Geyserville (375ml)

Thing is, I can't really afford any of these wines (except the Ridge wine, though esp. the Dominus, which retails around $125). The fact that I possess them is a testament to my luck and my hawk-like deal-finding ability. The Dominus I got from my dad who won it in a raffle in 2009, and after seeing it sit on his shelf for nearly two years in imperfect storage conditions (he's not much of a drinker...he'll have a very occasional beer, but I'm not sure I've ever seen him open a bottle of red wine), I gave him a lecture about wasting fantastic wine, told him I would store it for him, and that we could open it together in 10 years. It hope it's still good. But I saw him recently, and he asked if I had drunk it yet, so he's obviously not attached to the idea of trying it himself. Nothing cool happened to me in 2004 (Junior-Senior year of High School...unremarkable), so I'll just have to find an arbitrary special occasion...maybe if my band ever has a reunion...

But the rest I did purchase, at or near 50% off. The Chablis, the Barbarescos, and the Geyserville were all half-price purchases I got from after they put out a couple of 50% off coupons on some deal-of-the-day sites I watch. The Nicolas Joly I got for $30 (reg. $40-$50) from Lot18, a well-known wine flash sale site (I didn't even pay for shipping-I put a bottle in my cart, then left it, and they sent me a $10 credit to use on my first purchase, so shipping was free), which is only one of several sites I watch daily for wine deals. Others are Invino, cinderella wine, vinfolio (pricey stuff...I just look, I can't buy), and WineShopper. There are several others, but these are the best I've found. Any new good ones I haven't heard about? Woot Wine is ok, but they only do domestic stuff.

Anyway, I'm really excited to try all the wines, but the Ridge I'm especially excited about, because it holds quite a bit of sentimental value; 2009 is the year I got married and the year my daughter was born, and this is the FIRST of the many 2009 vintage purchases I will be making over the next several years to be stored and opened at anniversaries, birthdays, and other special events over the next century.

Check back in 10 years and I'll probably have consumed and written about all of them.

So what's in your cellar? And what else should I put in mine?

Friday, July 1, 2011

8 Things Wine Newbies SHOULD NOT Do.

A couple of years ago I got bit by the wine bug. Not sure exactly how it happened. I really seriously started my wine education about 18 months ago, though I had worked in a tasting room during the summer of 2008, and tasted not an insignificant amount of wine, including some very serious stuff with my uncle, who is a winemaker (formerly in Napa, now in Portland). But only about Febuary 2010 did I really start to go to wine tastings, purchase wine (what little I could afford-I got really good at finding the free tastings around Seattle), and explore the intellectual side of wine. This post is for the reader in my position 18 months ago. A newbie: someone interested, fascinated even, and wondering how best to go about spending limited time and cash (...oh, especially cash) on wine. Here’s what I wish someone had told me. Hopefully you can learn from my mistakes.

1. DO NOT put a blanket “I don’t like it” label on something general, like a particular varietal (e.g. “I don’t like Merlot”). Wines today are made in such a variety of styles that regardless of varietal (and even, these days, region) it’s a near-guarantee that one can find a wine that constitutes an exception to the preferences one discovers when only beginning to categorize and understand wine. Larger, general-level opinions should be left to the veterans who have tasted thousands of Merlots from all over the world.

2. DO NOT taste just anything from anywhere. If you’re motivated to learn about wine, then you need to start with the classics. Taste the benchmarks, the wines that have been made the same way for hundreds of years. You don’t really need to spend your limited wine budget on the Tempranillo from California grown from 10 year old vines and vinified by a wet-behind-the-ears winemaker, no matter what the critics score it. Instead, get an old-school bottle of Tempranillo from Muga, in Rioja. Or a bottle of classic Burgandy, for Pinot Noir, or Bordeaux, for Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, etc.

3. DO NOT think that all tasting is subjective. While the fallibility of tasters has been well-documented (people are gullible, and in blind tastings, thinking that a bottle is expensive causes them to assign it a higher score), and wine tasting is obviously not an exact science, there is general expert consensus, just like in science itself. This consensus is what helps to set prices and separate the good wine from plonk (And oh boy is there a difference between good wine and plonk. Try a jug of Carlo Rossi against a RIDGE wine sometime. Go on, I dare you.). Though do keep in mind that numerical wine ratings are nonsense (more on this later).

4. DO NOT, therefore, think that because you like it, it’s good. Some people will tell you that this is the case, but unless they’re true relativists (virtually no one is-it’s very difficult to defend philosophically) they’re either misguided or don’t really mean what they say. Our notion of “good” is informed, or really is constituted, by engagement with particular wines. So, as you taste more wines, your definition of “good” will change. In addition, real experts and connoisseurs are people who differentiate between “good” meaning well-made, and “good” meaning matching their personal taste. And that capacity takes a long time to develop.

5. In addition, DO NOT always worry about whether or not you like a wine, especially with benchmark and iconic wines. Yes, drinking wine should be pleasurable, but when one is seeking to truly understand wine, one’s subjective pleasure should come second to whether or not the wine is objectively good. Every expert knows that there are all sorts of wines that are well-made and yet don’t seem worth the money - that’s just the way subjective taste is (Here’s a personal example). And while you can easily get two experts to disagree on the quality of just about any bottle of wine, an objective, impartial, and non-contexualized analysis of a wine is what we should all strive for, despite the impossibility of achieving it. The first few sips: analyze, process, study. Then enjoy, while periodically returning to critical analysis of the wine as time passes and oxygen changes the aromatic and taste characteristics.

6. DO NOT buy by the case. Once you start tasting and drinking wine seriously, it’s been my experience that one’s tastes can change very quickly. Trust me, you’d rather NOT get stuck with 10 or 11 bottles that you’re not thrilled about. Unless it’s very difficult to find, you can probably track down some bottles if you wait a few months to make sure you’re still in love with the wine.

7. However, DO NOT buy just one bottle. If you taste it and you love it, buy two or three. Not only does this mean you can drink one in the near future with the exact flavor profile in mind (all the better for pairing it with food), but you can drink the other(s) a year or two down the road, comparing its aromas and flavors to your notes from the previous bottle, learning firsthand about how wine changes in bottle.

8. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, DO NOT think that wine is “just grape juice.” Wine can be a very heady and esoteric subject, and there is a tendency these days to simplify wine in order to appeal to a wide audience of people, especially by avoiding any semblance of snobbery that could intimidate and scare them away from the subject. This is admirable, but reductionism of the “just grape juice” sort goes too far. Wine is beautiful and fascinating, and in a very real sense more than the sum of its parts - if you don’t think so, I’m not sure why you’re reading a wine blog. But if you’re not sold, then think of similar sorts of reductions; is love “just a collection of hormones bouncing around in your head”? Is fine art “just a collection of blobs of pigment on a canvas”? No, they’re more than that, in what they inspire in the subjects they act upon, emotionally and intellectually. Grape juice, though possibly delicious, is just not that interesting. Wine is a nearly ubiquitous cultural touchstone, and has stimulated the minds and imaginations of people for thousands of years.

Next time, things a wine newbie SHOULD do. Thanks for reading, and give your own advice in the comments.