Monday, March 31, 2008

Judging The American Wine Blog Awards

After Tom Wark announced the finalists for the American Wine Blog Awards, there was a lot of grumbling about who made the cut and who didn’t. This is inevitable; I judge the relevance of any award by the amount of controversy it causes. Few people care that they didn’t get an award they didn’t know about. But as bloggers and their readers grouse, I thought I’d offer my perspective as a judge.

The judging process was straightforward: Anyone could nominate a blog in any of the categories, and when nominations closed, Tom sent each of the judges a spreadsheet with all the nominees. As far as I know, every nominated blog was on the spreadsheet, except for the ones written by the judges and the ones that didn’t meet Tom’s eligibility requirements. Each of the six judges ranked five finalists in each category, and then Tom combined all those to come up with the top four finalists he presented to readers.

My Judging
Judges could use any criteria we wanted for deciding our top five. I gave 50 points for the “so what?” factor, which varied based on the category. For the Single Subject category, for instance, my “so what?” translated into a simple question: If I wanted to learn about your subject, would your blog be a good way to do it? Then I gave 40 points for writing ability: Can the blogger communicate in a logical way? Does s/he demonstrate good knowledge rather than knee-jerk, poorly considered opinions? Finally, I gave 10 points for mechanics: Does the blogger know that it’s and its are separate words? Does s/he drop words from sentences? I gave this little weight in the total because most blogs don’t have copy editors. (For the graphics awards, I just gave a single score.)

I read the front page of entries for each site, and then all the posts from last September — sometimes people beef up their posts at awards time. I took notes on each blog. Brutal notes, too: I summed up one site with “blah blah blah” and another with “who nominated this site?” It didn’t matter if the site’s author was a real-life friend, a social-networking “friend,” or a total stranger. I tried to be as objective as one can be in a subjective context.

Is This The Best We Can Do?
Tom wrote of the finalists, “The collection of finalists … is a stellar example of all the things that are outstanding about the wine blogosphere.” As someone who pored through all the nominees, I had the opposite view: Is this the best we can do? There were one or two categories where I wished I could submit just three finalists, not five. In my scheme, not one site scored above 90 points (though there was at least one 89).

I am guilty of many of the sins I noticed on other blogs. I’m not sure how I would grade OWF if I were looking at it through the objective lens I turned on the WBA nominees. So I used my Web-wide jaunt as a reminder about what I could do to improve this site.

Some of you may find these little discoveries interesting. Some of you may tell me to take a hike (or, you know, some other phrase). That’s fine, because I want to preface these comments with one bit of advice: Write your blog for yourself. Writing for rewards and recognition is a sucker’s game. I have felt the sting of being overlooked for awards, but I finally remembered that I write OWF for my own benefit; my readers seem to keep coming back, so who cares if I don’t have a little badge in my sidebar?

What I Learned From The AWBA Nominees
Context matters. If I want to read page after page of "berries-cherries-flowers" tasting notes and irrelevant scores, I’ll pick up one of the big wine magazines. If I want to read uneducated, fawning press about some new health effect of wine, I’ll turn to newspapers. As bloggers, we can tell our readers why a given wine matters (or doesn’t) and where it fits in the world. We have the ability to talk about how it moves us (or doesn’t). We can wrap news stories in our own opinions and research. We can take a reader farther than the magazines can. We can teach and inform.

Personality matters. As bloggers, we don’t have to adhere to a dry, third-person editorial voice. We can be ourselves. We can use the first-person perspective that few feature wells allow. Of course, too much personality can grate on the reader, but too much is better than none at all. When I read a blog post, I want to get a sense of the person who wrote it. I want to care enough to click on the “About” link at the top of your page. We should let ourselves shine through a bit more.

Writing matters. I’m not a prescriptivist about grammar, despite what you may think. But you don’t need to memorize Strunk & White to communicate ideas in a useful way. Writing is a craft before it’s an art, and almost anyone can learn the craft. Magazines and newspapers have hard-working editors who clean up a writer’s prose: We have to rely on ourselves. I gave some advice about this in an earlier post — and I would add A Writer’s Coach to my list of recommended books — but I think many blogs would benefit from a few hours between writing and posting and one last careful read before the author hits Publish.

We have the opportunity to transform the way people look at wine. Our readers bond with us, learn about our lives, and trust our recommendations in ways most wine writers can’t imagine. We can introduce our readers to something beyond the mass-market bottles and the everyday grapes. We can show them that high quality doesn’t only come from a big magazine.

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Friday, March 28, 2008

Relying On Tools

I like to believe, despite the many boxes our friends packed and moved, that I am a minimalist about kitchen gadgets. A good knife, a solid whisk, a handful of wooden spoons, a few bowls, and a couple pots and pans are all a cook needs for most tasks. At least, that’s what I tell myself and anyone who asks.

It turns out that I take my gadgets for granted.

I can finally cook simple food in the kitchen: There are still drop cloths everywhere, but there is now a small work area next to our recently-uncovered refrigerator and stove. I was able to make a simple dinner of pan-seared sausage atop rice that had been cooked in Champagne and beef stock with carrots, celery, and onion.

The problem came the next night.

I had leftover rice, so I decided to fry up rice cakes and serve them atop a simple salad. When I’ve done this before, I’ve puréed some of the rice in my food processor to release the starch left in the grain — this is regular rice, not risotto rice, which hemorrhages starch into its cooking liquid. Where is the food processor? That I know: In an open box. But where are all its parts? I don’t know. I could combat the problem, I figured, by using my other trick: packing the rice into a circle mold. Where are my circle molds? I don’t know. Where is the large spatula I needed to flip the cakes? I don’t know. Where are my whisks so that I could make a vinaigrette? I don’t know: I used the “shake oil and acid in a bowl” approach. Where are my bowls so that I could dress the greens? I don’t know. (Though I did find a ginormous bowl that sufficed.)

I stressed and fumed and ranted as my rice cakes fell apart, all because I couldn’t find the gear that I quietly rely on in the kitchen. Maybe I’m not such a minimalist, after all.

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Dine For A Change, April 3, 2008

On April 3, have a good meal while donating to a worthy cause. Twenty-five Bay Area restaurants and stores will donate a portion of that day’s till to San Francisco Women Against Rape, an organization that educates about sexual assault and helps women who are victims of that horrible trauma. From Bi-Rite Market to our old neighborhood restaurant Pho 84, you have a wide range of options for donating. Take the opportunity to try a new restaurant, or visit an old favorite. Either way, you’ll be doing a good thing.


Saturday, March 22, 2008

Berkeley Bites

Our new house doesn’t have a kitchen. It did when we bought it, but before we moved in we turned that room into a miniature Christo installation, using plastic drop cloths to enshroud every surface while we sand down our smurf-blue walls and ceilings, prime them, and paint them — we’re just beginning to emerge from that process. This has been a glimpse into our lives when we remodel the kitchen in the next few years.

In the meantime, we’ve spent dinnertime exploring the restaurants in our neighborhood. Here are my thoughts on them, but I’d love to hear yours about good, inexpensive spots in our area. (As a related aside, Melissa discovered this sprawling list, a website that predates blogging, of restaurant reviews compiled by a few dedicated souls.)

Breads Of India
Our closest restaurant is a revered spot in this neck of Berkeley’s woods. The ever-changing menu offers a diverse spread of delicious Indian food, but the real treat is the naan. Each day, the restaurant makes four or five different kinds. The menu suggests naan pairings with the main courses. Garlic naan is always on the list, but the others change every day. Each naan is the size of a dinner plate: One naan and one samosa for each of us makes a filling (though not well-balanced) meal.

This always-busy Mexican restaurant is a popular weeknight stop for us. (And yes, for you purists, its cuisine is more Americanized than authentic.) The food’s good and filling, and the prices are cheap.

I didn’t have high hopes for our little neighborhood Italian restaurant, especially since they trumpet their “Best Vegan Brunch” award. But they not only use dairy and meat in their non-vegan dishes, the restaurant turned out to be pretty decent. Their steamed kale was intriguing, though I feel like I can make it with more balanced flavors, and the pasta was good. The small wine list featured some esoteric Kermit Lynch bottles, including at least one of his very few Italian imports and his Cuvée Kermit Lynch wine. And Tuesday nights are No Corkage nights, which I support.

Sea Salt
Though the prices prevent this from being an everyday restaurant, it was perfect for Melissa after she spent a grueling day sanding our kitchen walls to prep them for painting. A nice selection of oysters, great seafood, and an excellent wine list make this a top choice, but you pay for what you get.

Every now and then, we get a real craving for Barney’s sloppy hamburgers, only to be disappointed when the reality doesn’t live up to our memory. But when you have only a mild craving, the Bay Area chain cooks up a decent burger.

Lanesplitter Pizza
We rarely ordered pizza to be delivered to our apartment, so ordering from Lanesplitter was sort of a novelty. But the pizza was so-so, and I don’t think we’ll order from them all that often.

Gioia, on the other hand, is worth the 5-minute drive to pick up a pie for ourselves. Though the pizza slices were floppier than I might like, the toppings had a deep flavor. (The sausage on ours was from top-flight charcuterie — and friends of OWF — Fatted Calf.)


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Not About Food: The Other Kind Of Java

On Tuesday, our company’s president came all the way from Chicago to pay us a surprise visit.

Many of you are probably thinking the same thing we all did: Uh oh. And sure enough, headquarters is shutting down our office and laying all of us off at the end of May.

A few of you remember that this has happened to me before. That time, I took a month or so off, cooked a lot, made bread everyday, and generally loafed around. Now, I have a mortgage; my attitude has changed.

I already have a few promising job leads, but I decided to cast my net further out to sea: to all of you, in fact. If you’re hiring senior Java programmers — full-time writing probably isn’t realistic — and you’re in the San Francisco-East Bay area, I’d love to chat with you about a possible fit. Just drop me a line, and I’ll send you my resume. I’m pretty open to possibilities: I’ve worked in very small companies and very large ones in several different domains. I like in-the-trenches programming work that gets problems solved.

And if you’re not hiring, think good thoughts for me. I’m not panicked at all; I’m getting a good severance and I have always kept a large chunk of savings on hand because layoffs are a natural part of the modern-day technology industry. Still, tapping into that reserve isn’t my first choice.

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Class Update: Flying Blind/Going On A Blender

The last night of Fundamentals II is always fun. I start the night with a “guess the wine” exercise. As I told my class, being able to deduce a wine from its aromas and flavors is little more than a neat party trick for most people. But focusing on a glass and bringing your experience and memory to bear forces you to think about the wine and take time with it. Too often, we scarf our dinners and gulp our wine: There is value in giving your senses a chance to do their jobs.

I tried to pour wines that were similar but different compared with wines I had poured before. A California Sauvignon Blanc instead of a Sancerre. An Austrian Riesling instead of a German version. After they put forth their thoughts and their guesses, I told them the right answer and told them what could have served as clues. Those grassy, cat pee notes are Sauvignon Blanc, but the riper fruit suggested the New World. The fact that the Riesling wasn’t sweet suggested a country other than Germany. This kind of thing takes practice: As I said, “You’ll be able to impress your friends but your liver will be shot.”

For the second part of the class, I let the students blend their own wines. Rubicon’s winemaker generously donated barrel samples of three Bordeaux varieties: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. (This was a connection set up a year and a half ago when the class’s former instructor was Rubicon’s estate ambassador.) Each student got a generous pour of each; they had to come up with a blend, explain why they chose the proportions they did, give it a name, and figure out a marketing strategy. Some found that their blends didn’t work well; some found that their blends were great. Some emphasized the fruit character and went for a “drink it now” appeal. Others layered in the tannic Cabernet Sauvignon for a bottle that would age well and develop complexity. They were almost all able to articulate the qualities of the wine they made, in better terms, I think, than they would have used at the beginning of the class.

Finally, of course, I poured the soon-to-be-released 2005 Rubicon Cabernet Sauvignon, a very nice treat from the winemaker. With their own blending experiments fresh in their minds, they appreciated the subtlety, smoothness, and complexity of the official wine.

Because we had talked about botrytis, I poured everyone a little Tokaji Aszu, the famous Hungarian dessert wine, as they filled out their evaluation forms. Even in the last fifteen minutes of the course, I didn’t let up on them: I asked for an explanation for the rich orange color, and someone guessed (correctly) that it was from oxidation. I talked about the puttonyos classification for Tokaji (these days, a measure of residual sugar, but in the past an indicator of the number of baskets — puttonyos — of botrytized grapes that had been poured in to the press) and mentioned Tokaji Eszencia and dry Tokaji.

I always have a mix of sadness and relief when class ends. The class is a lot of work, but you can’t spend six nights with the same group of people without feeling closer to them. I know what people like, where they shop, and their favorite foods. They know my preferences and quirks, and they were all excited to hear that I would have the Wine section’s lead story the Friday after class ended.

Best of all, I can hear in their comments that they are more confident about their wine knowledge. They now talk about balance, complexity, oak, tannins, brettanomyces, and more.


Friday, March 14, 2008

SF Chronicle: Vineyard Nurseries

If you’ve already seen the lead story in the Chronicle’s Wine section, I know what you must be thinking: “Geez, Derrick, how cliched can you get? A story about vineyard nurseries?”

No, wait. I’m thinking of a different topic. In fact, the small-but-crucial nursery industry rarely gets coverage in the consumer press; I’m not sure how much coverage it gets in the trade press. But just about any vine you see in a vineyard comes from one of the handful of nurseries in the state, and lots of their stock comes from a small department at UC Davis.

I guess I have a thing for geeky wine topics — reverse osmosis, barrel alternatives, heritage cabernet clones — and I eagerly said yes when my editor asked if I wanted to cover this topic. I got a more in-depth look at how vineyards get vines, and I hope I conveyed that to the readers (by the way, be sure to check out the pictures as well). Along the way, I realized, more than ever, that plants are just crazy weird. You lop them into bits, glue them onto some other plant, and they start growing just like normal. Weird.


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Book Review: A Geography Of Oysters

I consider myself pretty oyster savvy, but the other night I looked at a restaurant’s oyster selection with new eyes. The names gave me clues they hadn’t before, and I had enough knowledge to comment on the presence of Olympias and Belons (these from Maine, I think), both unusual fare.

The secret to my new awareness? Rowan Jacobsen’s A Geography Of Oysters, an exhaustive look at the North American oyster industry. (Like all modern books, it has a companion website; unlike most such sites, this one is deep and useful.) Rowan was the managing editor at The Art of Eating for a time, but this is such a good reference that I have to recommend it, even though our former working relationship straddles my “know too well to review” line.

Rowan has that Art of Eating passion for extensive research. You will learn about the life cycle of an oyster, the history of oyster cultivation, and the many different farming techniques. And that’s all before he gives you a detailed tour of oyster regions, breaking them down further into the individual oysters that come from them. You’ll learn that a Malpeque can come from anywhere on Prince Edwards Island, while a Colville Bay comes from one tiny point. You’ll learn that the original Wellfleets and Bluepoints no longer exist: Each has been replaced by oyster seed brought from somewhere else. His detailed surveys include taste profiles of each different oyster type. And, of course, he has practical information for the oyster shopper, from shucking to recipes.

As good as the information is, the writing is the pearl in its shell. Rowan is one of the writers I look to as a model; he has a knack for colorful prose with a snappy tone and wit. Of life as an adult oyster, he writes, “You find a nice spot, settle into the lotus posture, and do nothing but eat, breathe, and periodically blow off a third of your body mass in one titanic ejaculation.” He ponders the use of the word terroir in reference to an oyster’s unparalleled ability to reflect its environment, writing, “Terroir, after all, refers to terra firma, and oysters’ terra isn’t very firma. But it’s a term already familiar to most readers, and speaking of meroir would get you laughed out of most restaurants …” It’s rare to find such pretty prose, and I feel like sending snippets to all the crappy writers out there.

Oysters are the ultimate foodie food; A Geography Of Oysters is the ultimate guide to them.


Monday, March 10, 2008

Class Update: A Night Of Terroir!

I started class the other night by asking how many of my students had heard the term terroir: Most had. Then I asked them what it meant, and the room quieted down. Tentatively, they began to mention the definitions they had heard while I scribbled them on the board. “Of the earth.” “The effects of soil on the vine.” “That a wine tastes like where it came from.” And so on.

As I told them, there’s no right answer. What, exactly, defines terroir is one of the most-debated topics in the ivory tower of wine geekdom. I gave them Matt Kramer’s clever definition — somewhereness — and my favorite description — a sense of place. I told them that some people say it’s whatever nature gives to the grape, but I have a more inclusive description: I don’t feel that you can separate the culture so easily. The way a vintner trains a vine. The traditional mindsets about winemaking. A Bordeaux must taste the way it does in part because the English were such a strong market for hundreds of years.

So how do you teach something that has no definition? You pour a lot of wine and talk about the factors that shaped each one.

I started the class by pouring a traditional Chablis (which is made with Chardonnay) and a rich, though unoaked, California Chardonnay. The descriptions overlapped to some extent (lemon zest, for instance) but the California Chardonnay evoked tropical fruits and had a heavy weight, while the Chablis prompted descriptions of stones and seemed more acidic. That, I told them, was the broadest stroke of terroir. Here in California, we get hot temperatures that saturate the grapes with fruit flavors and lower the acid. In Chablis, the cold temperatures and chalky soil tend to produce leaner wines with less fruit and more minerals.

After that, I poured a Sancerre and a Pouilly-Fumé. The two villages practically face each other across the Loire river, and both white wines are made with Sauvignon Blanc. The wines were similar, my students decided, but they did call out differences. This is terroir on a smaller scale and still, to some extent, in broad strokes. Sancerre has more south-facing slopes, but the chalky soil and steep slope drain water away from the thirsty vines, yielding more acidity despite the greater sun exposure. Pouilly-Fumé is flatter, and the flinty soil can leave a taste in the wine (though not in this one). (As a digression, we talked about Fumé Blanc, the California term, coined by Robert Mondavi, for Sauvignon Blanc made in a Loire-esque style.)

Next, I poured three Premier Cru Burgundies from 2005: Morot’s Cent-Vignes and his Toussaints and Xavier Monnot’s Toussaints. This is terroir at a more intimate level: different vineyards within a single region. Oftentimes in this class, students pick the vineyard bottlings as more similar than the ones from the same producer, but most of the class called the two Morots as the most similar. That didn’t exactly make a good illustration of the Burgundian fascination with terroir, but I would have sided with them: The Morots had more extraction and heavier flavors.

We closed the night with two Spätlese Rieslings from Kerpen in the Mosel. Same ripeness level, same region, but, again, different vineyards close by each other (and, I believe, on the same side of the river.) We talked about the differences and how the Mosel, along with Burgundy, is one of the few places where terroir is at its most obvious.

This week, we’ll be talking about blending and blind tasting.


Friday, March 07, 2008

Beer Glasses (Not Goggles), SF Chronicle

Delve into wine even a little bit, and you'll quickly discover the fetishistic appreciation of glassware. Crystal companies have made serious bank convincing the world that it needs a different wine glass for every style of wine, a marketing message that I find dubious at best, as it often reeks of pseudoscience.

But the wine world has nothing on the beer world, where it sometimes seems like every beer has a unique glass. I dug into that world a little bit for an article in today’s Chronicle. The subject is far richer than anyone can fit into 800 words, but I had a great time researching the history of beer glasses. (And related subjects: I found an interesting journal article arguing that George Ravenscroft at best funded lead crystal and didn’t develop it himself.)

For those who enjoy systems as much as I do, I found a couple of guides to beer glass shapes while working on this: one at and another at, which is also a good retail source for esoteric glassware.

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