Giants, A’s broadcaster Lon Simmons passes

Lon Simmons, best known as the voice of the San Francisco Giants, but also a broadcaster for the Oakland A’s and 49ers, has passed away at age 91.  Simmons, whose influence on northern California professional sports is considered by some to be similar to Vin Scully’s in southern California, moved west with the Giants in 1958 to be on their first broadcasting team in San Francisco, along with Russ Hodges, and called many historic games and plays of the likes of Willie Mays, Willie McCovery, the great right-handed pitcher Juan Marichal who in a rage once clobbered Dodger catcher John Roseboro with a baseball bat, and 49ers quarterback thJoe Montana.

An excellent obituary appears here in http://www.sfgate.com/sports/shea/article/Lon-Simmons-Bay-Area-broadcasting-legend-dead-6180395.php.

Lon Simmons, Rest in Peace.

 

Baseball’s Spring Training Getting Under Way

Players for California’s five Major League Baseball teams are in the process of reporting to their Spring Training camps all located in Arizona, where inter-league pre-season games for about four weeks will get under way starting March 3.  Catcher Buster Posey returns to the World Champion San Francisco Giants camp in Scottsdale, Arizona as the only returning starting position player to have participated in all three recent World Champion teams.  Though several of the Giant’s pitching staff have rings from all three of those World Series wins, free agency and trades have seen the departures of great regular position players like third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who has gone to work for the Boston Red Sox.  The Giant’s pitching staff remains very strong, with a great five man rotation that includes not only MVP Madison Bumgarner, but also Matt Cain and now again Tim Lincecum as the fifth starter.  Lincecum, a former Cy Young winner who has had trouble the last few years, has been working hard off season to get his pitches back.   But the Giants had a little scare when Manager Bruce Bochy was admitted to a hospital in Scottsdale for a heart ailment and had two stints implanted.  Bochy is expected to recover very quickly and be at the stadium this next week.

The Los Angeles Dodgers open their pre-season on March 4 with a game in Glendale, Arizona against the Chicago White Sox.  The Dodgers added catcher Yasmani Grandal as a back-up to A.J. Ellis in a trade with the San Diego Padres that gained the Padres slugger Matt Kemp.  Ellis caught for Clayton Kershaw all the way to his Cy Young Award last year, the first pitcher to win both that award and be the MVP for a National League team since 1968 (Bob Gibson).  Though Grandal can swing the bat, this observer believes the Padres got the better end of the deal, and just what they need, a really, really good hitter for the third or fourth spot.  Outfielder Kemp is apparently eager to play for the Padres, reporting early to camp in Peoria, Arizona, where the Padres play in a lovely little stadium and where you can almost always get a pretty good seat in the shade.  Kemp should be the star of the team in 2015.

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim train in Tempe, Arizona.  But news of the Angel’s spring training was dominated at the first press conference of the season by owner Arte Moreno’s complaints about the lack of progress in negotiating a new stadium lease with the City of Anaheim.  The Angels have a four year window from 2016-2019 to opt out of their lease, and if they don’t, they must stay in the current 50 year-old stadium until 2029.  All the news of possible NFL teams moving to the Los Angeles area and new stadiums being built is very much in Moreno’s mind.  The Angels failed to land free agent pitcher James Shields in the off season and Home Run Derby winner Josh Hamilton has had problems with injuries.

Rounding out the California teams, the Oakland A’s players are in Mesa, Arizona, where they will also return to play at historic HoHoKam Park, most recently the home of the Chicago Cubs, but a familiar former base for the A’s fans, where the A’s played in the late 1970s.  A very interesting development is the potential addition and return of left-hander and former San Francisco Giant Barry Zito, who rejoins the A’s on a minor league contract.  The 36-year-old, who won the 2002 AL Cy Young Award, left the A’s to sign a $126 million, seven-year contract with San Francisco before the 2007 season.  Zito was spotty during his entire term with the Giants until 2012, when he featured in three playoff victories, going 2-0 with a 1.69 ERA that helped propel the Giants into the World Championship.  And he won Game 1 of that World Series.  He became a favorite in San Francisco because of those key victories, and received a standing ovation when he left the field in 2013 after striking out Mark Kotsay of the Padres in relief in Zito’s last game as a Giant.  The Giant’s subsequently declined Zito’s 2014 option and bought it out for $7 million.  Zito sat out that season but now appears to be working hard to get back into baseball and on the A’s roster.

The A’s ace pitchers, right-handers Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin, are both coming off “Tommy John” surgery, Parker for the second time.  (No wonder the A’s are tinkering with the idea of left-hander Zito making a come-back!)

March will be pre-season month and then play will begin on Easter Sunday, April 5, when the St. Louis Cardinals play the Chicago Cubs, with opening day for the rest of the teams on Monday, UTI1827040_t730April 6.

 

Pete Carroll almost made history but Steve Stevens made $500,000 on Superbowl

Pete Carroll might have been the only football coach in history to have won two Superbowls and two national collegiate championships, and after a spectacular Jermaine Kearse juggling catch in the red zone into a last minute march to the goal-line, it looked like it was going to happen for Seattle, who trailed the Patriots by 28-24.  Marshawn Lynch, Seattle’s crack running back, was a cinch to run the final score into the end-zone and win the game for the Seahawks, but instead, Quarterback Russell Wilson threw an interception to the Pat’s defender Malcolm Butler and the game ended, after a little player rumble, with Quarterback Tom Brady’s Patriots as the winners.  Pete Carroll’s hopes were dashed at least this year.

There were plenty of happy Patriot fans, but perhaps the happiest would have been Steve Stevens of VIP Sports Betting in Las Vegas.  Stevens, who was featured last year on a CNBC series on sports betting, had tweeted and Facebooked before the game start that he had personally bet $500,000 on the Patriots.  He was probably the happiest person in America when the Patriots sealed their victory with just 20 seconds left in the game.th-1

Go Pete Caroll!

Seahawk’s coach Pete Caroll is one win away from making football history!  If the Seahawks win the Superbowl, he will be the only football coach in history to have won two Superbowls and two collegiate football national championships.  And those college championships were as head coach of our state’s University of Southern California Trojans.

There is indeed a California connection to Pete Caroll, and Trojan fans fondly remember him for bringing vitality and strength back into the USC football program after several years of misfires.  Sadly, some of Pete’s achievement at USC was marred by recruiting violations.  But that doesn’t change the fact of the football wins, any more than the “deflategate” scandal has disqualified the New England Patriots from their chance to battle the Seahawks in football’s biggest game.  Regardless, we wish both Pete Caroll and Bill Belichick and their teams good luck in the Super Bowl on Sunday, and Trojan fans especially superbowl01-300x238will know who they are rooting for!

Christmas California-style

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Christmas Tree at California Adventure, Disneyland.

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Christmas Tree at Fashion Island, Newport Beach, credit Kevin Labianco, Flickr Creative Commons.

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Christmas Tree in front of State Capitol Building, Sacramento.

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Christmas Tree at Fairmont Hotel lobby, San Francisco.

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Merry Christmas!

San Francisco Giants, World Champions!

For the third time in five years, the San Francisco Giants have won the World Series.  Hooray for them and hooray for Major League Baseball in California!  A Dynasty is reborn!World Series - San Francisco Giants v Kansas City Royals - Game Seven

Dodgers and Giants Pennant Playoff? Angels swept out of contention. But CA baseball looking good.

The San Francisco Giants won a marathon 18 inning game, the longest ever play-off game in Major League Baseball history, on Brandon Belt’s top-of-the-18th home run over this weekend off the Washington Nationals in the National League Playoff series, to take a 2-0 lead, with just one win in the three games left necessary to lift the Giants into the National League pennant battle and a chance for a birth in the World Series.  In the meantime, the Los Angeles Dodgers, who are split 1-1 with the St. Louis Cardinals, are moving to St. Louis for the next two games, and have a chance to get into the National League pennant play-off but only by beating the Cardinals at home, which will be a tall order.  California’s third team in the playoffs, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, honored their fans by making the playoffs but were swept out of contention this weekend by losing three games in a row to the Kansas City Royals.

Nevertheless, Ododgers-giants12ctober has been a pretty good baseball month for California and we all can agree that a Giants/Dodgers National league pennant series would be awesome!

Robin Williams, RIP

California Political Review wishes to offer a word about Robin Williams.  Monday August 11 we learned the sad news of his death at age 63.  Born in Chicago, his early years were spent in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan where his father was an executive with Ford Motor Company.  California became his home for much of his life though, and he attended Redwood High School in Marin County, and Claremont College in southern California.

Williams went on to study acting at the Juilliard School in New York City and his acting and comedy genius was recognized there, including in an advanced program with famous actor John Houseman.  Williams was often seen in the early stages of his career at comedy clubs in southern California and in San Francisco where he honed his skills, and got his first big break early in life being cast as the alien “Mork” in some episodes of the “Happy Days” television series which lead to his own successful comedy series in “Mork and Mindy”.  His film achievements, indeed his many life achievements, are too much to detail here, and are well known, including his Oscar-winning performance in the movie “Good Will Hunting” with a young Matt Damon.  He was generous in work with charities such as St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Williams was a most interesting person.  He seemed always coiled up and on edge, and it came through in his humor, yet he was capable of quiet and intense dramatiRobin_Williams_2008c roles as well.  A distant grandfather had been a Senator in Mississippi.  He was an Episcopalian, which he described in his comedy act as “Catholic Lite – same rituals, half the guilt.”  He entertained us in so many ways, made positive contributions to society, and will be missed.

Bordeaux ain’t bad, even for a Californian

My eyes were opened on French wine labels and tastes during my recent summer trip to Paris.  I have enjoyed the well-known French wines, but I have considered them impractical as too expensive, and the labels too confusing, to really try to enjoy them much.

But even as a boorish booster of California wines, I had the pleasure of attending a wine-tasting luncheon at an interesting local establishment called “ÔChateau” housed in the former residence of Madame de Pompadour.  The Madame, Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, was “the official chief mistress” of French King Louis XV, and as such had actual duties, such as arranging the King’s schedule while at the same time trying to not alienate the Queen.  That was in the late 1700s.  Today her former residence is a bustling wine bar set in the heart of Paris that offers several different types of introductions to French wines each day, through fun activities such as wine-tasting lunches and dinners, cruises, and outings to some of France’s best wine regions, including the Champagne region around Reims.

My French wine guide was Pierre, who grew up near Strasbourg, a city in France near the famous Alsace wine region, where many light and sweet French wines are made.  Our lunch at ÔChateau included tastes of five different French wines, all from different regions, paired with five different cheeses and lots of other luncheon goodies including French breads.  The wines tasted were all middle-priced and included a Champagne, Chenin Blanc, Gamay Beaujolais, Haut Medoc Bordeaux, and a Semillon.  The cost was 75 euros (about $100) but well worth it for both the lovely food and wine, but also the wine education, lasting almost two hours, in a beautiful private wine cellar.

My biggest takeaway was understanding from Pierre how the French think of wine labels and choosing a wine, which is quite different from my experience in California.  Here, I have come to think of selecting a wine by thinking of what food I want to pair it with, selecting a grape, such as a Cabernet Sauvignon, and then considering vintners, such as Caymus from Napa Valley.  Pierre, who has spent his lifetime in the wine industry (but actually did some studies at our own UC Davis!) says this is not how the French, with so many potential wine choices (some reference guides say there are 27,000 wineries in France) chose their wine.  Instead of thinking of a grape and vintage to match their meal, the French consider matching a meal to a wine from a “terroir” of the country.  Thus, a selection becomes very much more about the region that the wine is from, and not the reputation of the vintners’ label.  Where in California I might consider that a Caymus is a synch to match a juicy steak dinner, a French wine lover would more likely consider a region, such as the Medoc region pictured in the graphic attached to this article, rather than a particular vintner.

The Médoc region is known for its good red wines, usually Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon blends.  Médoc is in Bordeaux to the west of France and separated by a river.  According to Pierre, the wines north of the river are known to the French to produce red wines based mostly on Merlot.  But to the south of the river, the blends are based mostly on Cabernet.  And at the northern tip of the district south of the river, the Cabernet-dominated wine blends have especially well-known characteristics.  These wines are labelled as “Haut Médoc”, a description I have seen many times but never really understood.  They are from the “high Medoc” terrior and are just excellent.  Due to tight controls on how the wines are made, their taste all pretty equally reflect the unique “terrior” from which they originate – soil, climate conditions, pollination and methods all pretty much being the same for the dozens of wineries in a particular terrior.  The “Haut Médoc” we tasted at ÔChateau was not expensive, either.  It was a Château Belgrave and it retails in France for just 21 euros ($28.22).  It was paired with a true roquefort cheese and the two together were amazing!  A few days later as I was leaving France, I bought a bottle of Chateau le Legune Haut Médoc at the duty free at Charles de Gaulle airport for 31 euros ($41.66), tried it, and am very impressed.  It is available and retails at $69.99 at www.klwines.com here in California.  That is not cheap, but it is Grand Cru Classé (meaning it is made to top standards) but a heck of a value compared to the more well-known French wines we see on the lists at our better restaurants that bear both incomprehensible and inapproachable pricing.

Pierre’s message was that one should not get too frustrated with learning all the wineries in France, and you don’t have to pay top dollar.  All one really has to learn is about the French wine regions – just seven of them – to get a decent handle on French wine appreciation and reduce mistakes in choosing a bottle.  It is surely a little different from the way some of us have looked at it in California, but increasingly California also is developing a wine industry that reflects a “terrior” palate rather than a common homoginized taste.  “Rutherford dust” is a distinct taste that many California cabernet fans understand is present in such wines as “BV” from the Rutherford district of Napa Valley.  Monterey county chardonnay fans often mention a crisp “pinneapple” taste they get from local wines in that region of California, distinct from other areas.  In California, our wine industry has had only perhaps 100 years of development and much is still new.  In France, dozens of generations have been growing grapes and making wine at the same locations.  It is perhaps no wonder that French wines can be distinguished more by “terrior” than vintner, because they have worked at it for centuries and have maintained standards that have created unique, but commonmap-vignoble-de-bordeaux-medoc local flavors.  In any event, I am glad to have learned something useful to my own hobby of wine appreciation and to understand that there are great, affordable French wines out there – but I won’t abandon California wines anytime soon!

 

 

The California Chardonnay Paradox

Is drinking Chardonnay a thing of the past?  That is what I used to think.

As a red wine drinker, enamored with the best that France has to offer, I rarely drank or even thought about California white wines or white wines in general (other than Burgundy’s Le Montrachet). The idea of opening up a California Chardonnay somehow seems pedestrian – just not what real wine connoisseurs do. Occasionally, when enjoying a food pairing, I would tolerate (and even secretly enjoy) a glass of Chardonnay picked out by the sommelier.  Still, on those rare occasions I drank Chardonnay without much reflection or appreciation of what this awesome grape has achieved for the wine industry, and its flock of loyal followers worldwide.

There seem to be at least two reason why Chardonnay, and particularly California Chardonnay, has a bad reputation among serious wine drinkers.  First, vast majority of California Chardonnay sells for less than $10 per bottle.  There is a monolithic assumption that inexpensive wine cannot be any good.  Second (and a related reason) is that California Chardonnay causes disdain among the cognoscenti due to the wine by the glass pandering to the masses and its “came-and-went” trend among people that typically drink cheap beer.  In fact, in the recent years there has been an ongoing movement that can be characterized as “Anything But Chardonnay”.  There is certainly at least some truth to the anti-Chardonnay sentiment.  But, it is only a small part of the Chardonnay story.

In many ways judging wine is a subjective exercise.  In fact, many will agree that to scientifically and objectively rate wine is impossible. Nick Passmore, in his Forbes article, The Finest California Chardonnay, likens wine rankings to “deciding the best actor at the Oscars or the best Chinese restaurant…”  Nevertheless, there are some objective parameters and clear differences between really bad and really great wines.  The difference between low end poorly made Chardonnay and its greatest examples is part perception, part personal taste, and part objective tasting characteristic assessed over time. This applies to all wine.

Chardonnay continues to sell very well and there are some very good California Chardonnays that, albeit distinctly Californian, can stand up to some tough competition from France and elsewhere.  For instance, Grgich Hills, Montelena, Kistler, Peter Michael, Kongsgaard Napa Valley, Aubert Lauren Estate, and Hanzell Vineyards Sonoma Valley make excellent Chardonnay wines.

Why Chardonnay?

After some thinking, reading, and tasting, I realized that Chardonnay from California is a worthy wine, especially when it comes to its many better examples.  Equally important, Chardonnay is a money maker for the wine industry.  Its detractors are too hung up on the mass marketing of cheap Chardonnay that does not reflect the amazing talent of California winemakers, and the fact that well crafted Chardonnay is truly priced at a fraction of what you would be paying for good quality red wines.  Those same critics also seem to fail to see that the cheap Chardonnay they so despise delivers new converts to the ranks of wine collectors.  Being an occasional contrarian in collecting wine, I have reassessed California Chardonnay.

The gold standard of all Chardonnay, Burgundy’s mythical Le Montrachet, is certainly the most expensive and most venerated white wine on earth.  With prices starting at several thousand dollars for its finest examples, Le Montrachet is an outlier white wine even for many of its peers in Burgundy.  Chardonnay’s true home is in Burgundy, but unlike, the fickle Pinot Noir, which also is perfected in

Burgundy, Chardonnay is utterly adaptable, and is perhaps even more robust than Cabernet Sauvignon when it comes to surviving and even thriving in virtually any environment.  It is, indeed, the ultimate survivor chameleon grape.  Here is why.

Chardonnay is very easy to grow in different climates and soils. Burgundian Chardonnay is known for displaying more layers of complexity, than its California peer.  As Passmore observes, California Chardonnay is “lean and plush, austere and rich, refined and rugged”.  Needless to say, not all Burgundy Chardonnay is worthy. Just as low quality California white wine is flat, obese, buttery, sweet and cheap, the bad examples from Burgundy are thick, unbalanced in minerals, funky smelling, stale, and oddly enough still expensive compared to the California swill.  Not surprising, as quality improves, the two versions of Chardonnay seem to get closer to one another in certain tasting notes.

The better producers from California are certainly different from the mass produced California Chardonnay from Gallo, BV, and Kendall-Jackson.  Most of the California Chardonnays, as most wines, are produced for immediate consumption.  As I pointed out there are a number of California Chardonnays that do age; in fact, they improve with age.  California Chardonnay is still the most popular wine sold in U.S., points out Robert Whitley, in his 2012 article on creators.com, called “The Mystery of California Chardonnay”.  Whitley observes that Chateau Montelena, Grgich Hills Estate, Nickel & Nickel, and Patz & Hall Zio Tony Ranch Chardonnays are some of the wines that fall into that age-worthy category.

Montelena, one of the most famous California Chardonnays proved its worth in 1975 at the Judgment of Paris, standing up to some serious Burgundy white wines.  This wine can easily age for 12 years +.  These better wines range from $35 to $55 retail, which is a bargain compared to Chardonnays from Burgundy or most red wines.  Chardonnay is a malleable and moldable grape that comes in a variety of styles. “Chardonnay comes in a wide range of styles, from the green-tinged, racy wines of Chablis to the rich, powerful grand crus of Corton and Chassagne. There are fruit-filled oaky Australian chardonnays and the new wave of lean, unoaked, non maloed examples emerging from the Yarra Valley.  Even California’s straw-colored, mineral chardonnays display a radically different approach to the variety, accentuating its chameleon character,” explains Stephen Yafa in his article, California Chardonnay: from Butterball to Balance, published on February 18, 2013 on wine-searcher.

Chardonnay makes up approximately 30% of all the table wine shipped from California to the U.S. marketplace, and yet “no one seems to drink it,” quips Whitley.  Whitley, argues that this apparent contradiction can be explained.  He calls California Chardonnay “the Wonder Bread of Wine”.  It is predictable from vintage to vintage, cheap, and generally has appealing taste for many people.  In other words, it is easy to produce and is accessible to the untrained palate.  It is a huge money maker for the wineries, producing easily several tons per acre.  The more expensive, but not deserving (in my view) California Chardonnay such as Rombauer or Far Niente tends to be rich, creamy, buttery, and almost oily.

No one cared or knew of Chardonnay until the mid 1970s before the Judgment of Paris declared that Montelena produced an amazing wine, elevating the Chardonnay grape to quasi-celebrity status.  Prior to that California Chardonnay was a cocktail wine made in one predictable style.  Whitley observes that, there has not been a dwindling of the planted acreage in California. 53 Million cases of chardonnay are shipped to U.S. consumers each year (California Wine Institute statistics as sited in Yafa’s article).  The sales of Chardonnay wines top those of Cabernet and Champaign combined.  According to New York based Impact Databank, practically 1 in 3 bottles of wine drunk in the U.S. is a California Chardonnay.

Chardonnay is also the good will ambassador of wine.  It is likely the first wine that people who don’t drink wine start drinking.  These tyro wine drinkers will often move to reds, and will finally graduate to the better Chardonnays, whether from famous Burgundy or from California’s top producers such as Steve Kistler.  Ergo, not only is Chardonnay the missionary that recruits and converts new generations of wine lovers, it is also a money maker for the wine industry, and in its better examples it is truly exquisite.

What Might the Future Hold?

Yafa seems to suggest where California Chardonnay is heading.  It is no longer a monolithic butterball saturated with residual sugar and Costco-style powdered vanilla flavors best paired with popcorn or potato chips, he whimsically seems to indicate.  Leaner, more complicated Chardonnay wines are finding their way into the marketplace.  Yaffa refers to it as the “anti-chardonnay rebellion” that is leaving the mass produced white swill and its diabetic higher priced cousins – epitomized by Rombauer and Far Niente – in the dust.

Many Chardonnay drinkers still prefer the less expensive and more accessible white wine.   This is not such a bad thing.  Chardonnay is the gateway drug that pulls wine novices into the world of wine. People who don’t understand wine may start out with the monolithic entry level Chardonnay, but can graduate to the Kistler style or Burgundian, more nuanced wines, and ultimately move into Pinot, and other varietals, gaining true appreciation for wine.  There is a redemption in sight for California Chardonnay, and its drinkers.  We should not underestimate the benefit and beauty of California Chardonnay.

(Yuri Vanetik is a private investor and wine collector.  He resides in Southern California, but travels and tastes wine all over the world.)