Smarting-Up Wine

Dear reader, if you actually exist out there, as you may know from reading the blog I’ve been flailing about a bit trying to find a voice for this Arbiter Bibendi thing. Is it a sommelier’s voice from the floor? A look inside the business of wine? A travel guide of great wines I’ve tasted and people I’ve met? I don’t know, all those topics seem to be pretty played out and I really don’t know which turn I’ll take next. One thing you can tell is I like to swim upstream and challenge misguided conceptions.

My latest tack is based on the general assumption that somehow wine is too complex for people to understand and thus it must be brought down to their level so that they can enjoy it. If this were the case, then how did some of us overcome this obstacle and become obsessed with it? I don’t believe that we’re somehow blessed with some super awareness that lets us decipher the intricacies of wine but rather that something in the long and twisted history of the grape resonated with us and drew us into its web. There’s something about the unknowable that inspires people to want to know it. My goal is not to bring wine down to you, I respect it too much to oversimplify it, but rather to help elevate the reader as to why this thing that to you may be just a sophisticated way to get a buzz means so much more to us geeks. With any luck it will inspire someone to seek their own path through this fascinatingly complex world.

Proprietary information

The art of crafting wine lists is a personal thing. A truly good wine list is a reflection of the relationships and values of the sommelier and image of the restaurant. The selection of wines along with the format, typeface and binding of the list all tell a story of what the restaurant is trying to project in its beverage program. The wines should be selected to complement the chef’s cuisine as well as to offer a wide selection of interesting wines of all styles to appeal to the varying palates of the guests. As a buyer, you develop your own preferences of distributors, wineries and importers that resonate with you. It’s fun taking these stories to the table to win new converts. Over the course of a career one develops a wine persona and it is reflected in one’s list.

One of my habits as a somm is reading wine lists. I browse the web and download pdf versions by the dozen. I’m always interested to see how one assembles a list and am on the lookout for new trends and wines to seek out. I also love to find new ideas in how to present wines beyond just the basic list of label information. Some of my favorites are Terroir NY, Frasca Food and Wine and the late Catalan Food & Wine. I have incorporated features from all of them into my list.

Recently, I had the chance to talk with Paul Grieco from Terroir about his lists. I mentioned that I had borrowed the metal binder format with notebook paper and asked if that was OK with him. He responded that he considered his lists to be open source and that I could take what I wanted. The important thing was that people are out there doing cool things with their wine lists and making it fun for the guests. I couldn’t agree more.

Our job is to sell wine and enhance the guest experience thus bringing them back to the restaurant to buy more wine. Any tool that makes that job more effective is fair game to me. My list is a reflection of my interests in wine and is designed for my restaurant. If someone finds something useful in my format or selections go for it. The important thing is for there to be more good lists out there, thoughtfully conceived, well populated and fairly priced. That is the best way to advance our cause. If my list can inspire like those who have inspired me that I’m proud to have done something worthy of appropriation.

Yes, you do need some help…

After spending a week in the trenches of retail I’ve had a chance to observe a snapshot of basic customer behavior. There is a lot of work to be done if we want to reach people with the good stuff that we care so much about.

It’s a very different situation than the floor of a restaurant where you have a little more power over what your guests drink and more immediate feedback in the guest’s reaction. I do miss the joy of seeing someone light up when first tasting a wine I recommend or hearing the response from a perfect food and wine pairing. In retail you try to load them up with good stuff and your reward is when they come back wanting more.

The biggest disappointment in retail is the general level of fear among customers. Many see talking to an expert about wine akin to encountering a used car salesman. They are very suspicious that we are pushing high-margin plonk on them and cling to their SpecuParker numbers and familiar brands for dear life. I find it dismaying that every time I turn my back another several bottles of over-marketed junk disappears. I guess I’m getting a big whiff of the momentum of mainstream brand marketing I had previously actively ignored in the restaurant business. It’s disappointing to see so much great wine languishing in the racks while overproduced swill flies out the door. I’ve developed a rule of thumb for people to follow, “If you haven’t heard of the wine, it’s probably better than the brand you know.”

I get paid on total sales so it shouldn’t matter whether someone buys Silver Oak or Daguenau Silex but it does. Just as before, I am excited by the treasures we have in the store and want to share them with people eager to discover the greatness that is in those bottles. My role is as a liason between the hard-working folks making this agricultural artistry and the curious who want to hear their story and drink some great wine.

I’m sure this will get better as I settle in and the clientele get to know me but in the meantime people, ask me some questions.  The odds are heavily in my favor that I can find you a wine you’ll like better than you can.

Sincerely,

Arbiter

Outsmarting ownership

In my experience I have discovered that often the biggest obstacle to an exciting beverage program is the restaurant’s ownership or the sommelier’s dreaded nemesis, the accountant. I have had many clashes with short-sighted bean counters who only look at financial numbers without considering the overall picture of the restaurant’s health. My response to the accountants is usually something like, “When you put a dollar in the bank then tell me how to run my program.” It’s not really surprising I’m not running a restaurant program right now.

I have helped establish and run very successful beverage programs at excellent beverage costs with high profitability, even with below standard wine markups. I have bought very well and created innovative wine lists that push sales on nights when I’m not on the floor. I have done a lot of this while banishing ‘usual suspect’ wines from my lists. I refuse to carry Cakebread, Rombauer, Silver Oak and many of the most familiar brands. I’m not saying these are bad wines, to the contrary their success means they are doing a lot of things right. My goal is to separate my restaurant from all the other options available to the diner selecting a restaurant. I want them to come to my place for the same reasons they come for the food. To have a unique high-quality experience that they cannot find anywhere else. It is this loyalty that keeps a restaurant going and develops the core clientele essential for success. My motto is, “Don’t give the people what they want, give them what they didn’t know they wanted.”

It’s true that this thinking does not reflect itself immediately in the sales numbers of the restaurant. Many places follow the current trend of filling their lists with familiar brands and assigning the task to a manager (part of his 70hr week while he isn’t making schedules, ordering supplies or working the floor). The accountants figure the numbers don’t change much and why pay a sommelier to increase sales 10-20%. I think of a good sommelier as being like Hines Ward, one of my favorite Steelers. Yes, his performance as a receiver is outstanding, but his importance to the team as a blocker and a leader are beyond quantification. It does, however, show up in the standings and the continued success of the team. A good sommelier will develop a rapport with guests, creating regulars, and act as a liaison between the back and front of the house. A well placed wine pairing or a chat at the table can help a kitchen falling behind on a busy night or smooth over a guest complaint.  A sommelier can be the final layer of polish that makes a dining experience that much more memorable. When dealing with a critic, good wine service can be the tipping point for an extra star.

I always said that my job was to make my chef look good and I have selected and recommended beverages to show the food in its best light. Chefs like Thomas Keller, Eric Ripert and John Tesar are brilliant but when you add the complimentary skills of sommeliers like Paul Roberts, Bobby Stuckey, Aldo Sohm and Michael Flynn the dining experience becomes transcendent and more importantly, worth the extra expense of their pricey menus.

A successful dynamic program is not limited to fine dining. The best wine list in Texas is at Catalan in Houston. Antonio Gianola put together a fantastic wine list at unheard of markups (close to retail). He was blessed with outstanding ownership who understood that by selling a lot of wine and developing a passionately loyal clientele they would ultimately see more profit. In addition, vendors and distributors love him because he moved so much wine giving him access to allocations and rare wines unavailable to most places. This is a system the owners have employed in all their restaurants and they are all packed and making money while maintaining the buzz that often fades after the initial novelty wears off. Even better, they are moving the market and other restaurants in Houston are catching on.

I believe that this is the future of dining. Fine dining will come back but when it does the focus will be on delivering for the expense. The French Laundry and Le Bernardin are very expensive restaurants yet they remain full and guests leave more than satisfied despite the price. By offering superior quality food and wine with excellent service guests feel the cost is validated. A well-trained enthusiastic beverage professional is as integral to this formula as is a chef de cuisine.

The Demise of Fine Dining?

2010 has been a very tough year for the Dallas restaurant scene. In the last 12 months we have lost four iconic restaurants from the scene and have added little of note to replace them. Lola, Dali, Aurora and most recently York St.  pushed against the grain with innovative cuisine and well-thought beverage programs. They were exactly the type of place that inspired fiercely loyal clientele and the type of repeat business that restaurants crave. All had achieved national acclaim as destination worthy places in Dallas. They were not inexpensive casual places but restaurants where the experience greatly outweighed the expense. In the end these restaurants tired of swimming upstream and the balance of passion and dedication was not reciprocated enough by the few who adored them to make the trade off worthwhile. While Dallas foodies lament the loss the masses continue along to the multitudinous temples of mediocrity oblivious of what they missed.

The timing of the announcement of York St.’s closing coincided with D Magazine’s annual announcement of the best new restaurants of 2010. While there are some good new places in town I can’t help thinking we’ve lost a lot more quality than we’ve gained. They gave the top spot to the latest incarnation of an established popular restaurant. The type of place making a lot of money off of truffle mac & cheese and meat loaf. Well-made, tasty comfort food but nothing that moves the needle one bit. In fact, of the top 10, most were the same casual home cooking theme along with a new chain steak house, a yuppie taqueria and a glorified food court stand.

Aurora’s Avner Samuel successfully rebranded as a bistro and more importantly maintains a venue for his sporadic flashes of brilliance. The man is amazing when he’s inspired. Joel Harloff (Dali) has also landed on his feet and will have a lot to say if the nostalgia crowd can stop clinging to the Green Room’s past and let it go where he wants to take it. Their resurrected ‘wine me-dine me’ has potential under the capable Chris Chapman if they let him have fun with the beverage program.

I know the economy has forced everyone to rethink the restaurant experience and fine dining has faced the brunt of the cutbacks but that does not mean that we need to settle for the same modern/casual trend with the same boring menu hidden behind the farm to table mantra. It’s not the price point that people balk at, it’s the value associated with the price. If it’s worth the tariff people will seek it out. There are plenty of modern innovative restaurants in Houston, Austin, NY, Chicago, SF, etc. Why does Dallas seem exempt from creativity?

Another aspect of the ‘comfort’ phenomenon is the lackluster beverage programs. Many of these places employ hot-shot bartenders and feature cutting edge cocktail and beer programs while settling for ‘give them what they want’ wine lists that remain locked into the antiquated full restaurant markup. Even places that employ talented beverage professionals shackle them with restrictions that they would never dream of putting on a chef. You’d think that the same people taking a chance on a carefully reconstructed 1890s Jerry Thomas cocktail would be amenable to say a Chinon or Zweigelt but these places cave and offer the same obvious Chardonnays and Cabernets. No wonder the beer and cocktails are hot. They offer something unique and new at a relative bargain.

There may be hope on the horizon for 2011. A couple of about-to-open places promise authentic cuisines and dialed in bev programs but they face a steep climb against a fickle public. With a little help from the business cycle and the continuation of tax cuts hopefully diners will have some extra cash to blow on a good meal out. Let’s hope there will be a few exciting new places where they can do just that and leave with the impression that it was money well spent.

The first post of the rest of the blog…

It’s been a while since I posted, mainly because I’ve been trying to figure out the direction of the blog these days. I started this blog as a sommelier’s view from the floor but I haven’t been on the floor of a restaurant for 6 months now. I am now on the supply side but I don’t know this game well enough to have much to say about it beyond ranting and frustration, which doesn’t make a very interesting read. Alfonso covers that area much better than I can hope to do. I have decided to re-purpose the blog (if it ever had one) towards helping young beverage professionals to design and run an interesting and profitable restaurant program.

I will be taking on ideas like how to take on owners and accountants whose interests often run contrary to the best interests of the wine program. How to direct guests where you want them to go in a gentle non-condescending way. Food and wine pairings that will win friends and repeat guests. How to make a dynamic and edgy wine list also more profitable. Wine list design to help sell wine when you are not on the floor. Stuff I have found to have worked for me and things I admire in my colleagues programs. It seems to be one of the few wine voids out there in wine blog land and I hope someone finds it useful.

TEXSOM 2010

OK, so I’ve been bad and have been away for a long time. Sorry, just in case anyone noticed. I started this blog as a sommelier’s view from the floor of a restaurant and then stopped working in the restaurant so it’s played a little havoc on my premise. I’m adjusting to life on the other side but it’s quite different and not quite as interesting to write about.

One event that always recharges my batteries and makes me happy I moved to the wine business is the annual wine-a-palooza that is Texsom. It is a unique event that we are lucky to have here in Texas and is the brainchild/stroke of genius of 3 Texas MSs, James Tidwell, Drew Hendricks and Guy Stout. It is a two-fold event. One part wine conference where there are in-depth lectures on wine regions and trade seminars dealing with new trends and challenges in running a restaurant program. The other part is a sommelier competition to crown Texas Best Sommelier via a grueling exam of theory, service and tasting judged by Master Sommeliers.

This event has a deep personal connection for me and I do everything I can to make it every year. It was at Texsom where I got my first immersion into the sommelier culture. In 2006, I took my Introductory Course with the Court and James and Drew were kind enough to give a scholarship to a broke newbie to attend the seminars. I missed 2007 but went down to Austin in ’08 to take a shot at the competition. I had been training with my buddy D Lynn, who was the favorite, and figured what do I have to lose. To my great surprise I had a good day and won it all. It was this year when I got to meet many of my colleagues from around the state and many Masters from around the nation. 2009 saw my first chance to give back by volunteering and allowed me an opportunity to show off my brand new green pin. Acquaintances became good friendships and since we were back in Dallas D Lynn and I assumed a host role for our visiting friends showing off the best of the city.

Which brings us to this years event. Each year so far has been different and this year was no exception. Strangely, I found myself moving into a mentor role. I still think of myself as in learning mode soaking up knowledge and receiving. Lately, I’ve redirected my efforts to helping colleagues. Our Dallas Sommelier Group has been on a tear. Dilek Caner, a member who has almost completed the rigorous MW, passed the Advanced this month. Andy Powers, who recently joined, has completed his Certified with flying colors and Steve Murphey after many years of trying finished 3rd. D Lynn is sitting the MS as we speak so we’re hoping the DSG momentum continues. I found myself coaching several contestants, giving them pep talks and advice for their service and tasting and they were LISTENING!

I still have a long way to go to reach the finish line but considering how much I have received from my colleagues it is good to be giving something back. It feels weird to have people look up to you when you spend you time looking up at others but I hope I can help them along as well as others have helped me. That’s what makes Texsom so great. We get together with all of our colleagues at all levels and build bonds that inspire us to go out and do good work. That and we drink a lot of great wine and Campari and have a lot of fun.

The (not quite so) Dark Side

It’s a common amongst sommeliers and wine buyers to refer to the distribution realm of the wine world as ‘The Dark Side.’ As if wine sales reps were Imperial Storm Troopers moving to the commands of Darth Vader pushing the wares of wineries directed by complex marketing schemes to control the vinous intake of the land. Even some on the distributor side sometimes feel sullied by the demands of these large vendor groups and their mandates. The requirements of business sometimes run contrary to the more idealistic notions of why we are in the wine world in the first place. On the other hand, I have many distributor friends who love wine as much as any sommelier and the money and hours are quite favorable so I try to cut them some slack (despite a little good-natured teasing. After all, you never know when the call comes and you’ll find yourself on the other side of the table.

It just so happens, this is exactly what happened to me recently. I never planned to move to the other side but certain things occurred involving my restaurant program disintegrating and some serendipitous events led me to doing some part time work helping some friends bring their wine in to the Dallas/Ft. Worth market. Now this company is not your typical wine flogging establishment. The wines in the book are among the rarest and most expensive wines from California. As such, it isn’t as much selling as it is deciding where the wines should be placed. Still, it puts me in an adversarial position with my colleagues where I’m dependent on their selections to earn a living. It’s a very different perspective to be making calls and sending emails to get audiences with people whom I’m used to just meeting socially at wine tastings and events. Whereas before my task was to balance my list, maintain costs and keep my guests happy now I find myself managing my limited samples and doling out allocations trying to keep each from feeling snubbed that they can’t get more than 3 bottles of some allocated gem. I am about to pick up another book of one of my all time favorite importers of great French and Italian wines. Between the two books there’s enough great stuff to satisfy even a geeky sommelier like me. Still, it’s a somewhat different form of being the Arbiter Bibendi.

The good part is I have some solid relationships in the business and I can use my experience as a sommelier to think like they do and present my wines on their terms. I’m not yet in the position where I identify myself with the distribution side but this experience has certainly been an eye opener for me. I anticipate going back to the restaurant/buyer side given the opportunity but so far I’m enjoying seeing what this side is like and I’ll see where it takes me. I just may have to change the focus of the blog a bit in the meantime.

Top Somm

Last week I competed in the Top Somm regional final for the Mountain region (Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada) sponsored by the Guild of Sommeliers. I reached stage two by having one of the top scores on an online exam back in January. It was an honor to be one of the top 10 qualifiers from the region. Our region is particularly difficult as Colorado, Las Vegas and Texas are all hot spots known for the development of somms for the Court of Master Sommeliers. Those of us in Texas have a friendly rivalry with our friends in Colorado and when you add the wine machine that is Vegas it makes for some high standards.

Eight of us made it to Dallas for the competition (my buddy and one of the favorites, D Lynn Proctor, had to compete in Chicago as he would be away on the day of the contest). All but one of us had passed the Advanced Exam and several had sat for the Master. It was a daunting group with lots of fancy ties all around. The Little Nell in Aspen was there in force with a trio of somms. Texas was represented by Liz Dowty and Eric Hastings of Houston and me.

At 8AM, we filed into a room and were subjected to the hardest theory test I have ever seen. I admit I have been coasting a bit on my theory since August but these were not questions that I would have even considered much less have ever studied. We all walked out a bit shell-shocked and gathered in the lobby trying to piece together the answers from our various notes.

The next phase was a bit more familiar, blind tasting. We all knew the format, 6 wines 25 minutes. Describe and identify the best you can what’s in the glass. Hit the boxes and score points. Since we do this all the time, it was probably the most fun exercise in the competition. When I came out of my tasting someone asked me if any of the wines spoke to me. I answered, “not really, they sort of mumbled.” No NZ Sauv. Blanc or Napa Cab or any other ‘bankers’ in this flight. The wines were all shy tweener wines that really could have been any number of things. To add to the difficulty, the tablecloth was beige and the lighting in the room was muted making visually describing the wines tricky. As we sat around the table at lunch it seemed that everyone called different things and we didn’t really have a consensus.

Finally, we met for the service portion. This is where the testing crew really had some fun with us.  The stations were again familiar from the Advanced exam: decanting, wine pairing, Champagne service. Each element had a twist to separate us. The decanting station featured a wine that didn’t exist that we were supposed to catch. For food and wine pairings we were asked to use a single varietal to pair a four course menu of wildly varying foods. For Champagne, the wine we were given was nearly impossible to open with several of us either being unable to open the bottle or ripping the top off the cork. Those who got it open did it with a loud pop, a cardinal sin in any testing environment.

We all retreated to the bar and consoled ourselves that the worst we could do was tie for fourth.  I actually think this is one of the most rewarding parts of exams and competitions. The down time you spend with fellow travelers beating ourselves up over our mistakes, talking shop about our programs and bonding with colleagues from around the country is unique and rewarding. So often, a somm’s job is a solitary one so the times we get to spend together helps to recharge the batteries and add some new ideas to our repertoire.

We gathered back in the service room for a brief awards ceremony where I placed in the expected tie for fourth. Dustin Wilson, one of the rising stars from Aspen took the medal. The good folks from Iron Horse and Robert Mondavi winery supplied some nice wines to try with our sliders, tater tots and sushi buffet. The only frustrating aspect of the whole thing is that we had no feedback from the competition. As is the Court’s standard they never tell you the answers. This seems a bit unfortunate as this is a competition environment and we are all working to improve ourselves for upcoming exams. I don’t see the harm in letting us know where we did well and what we should work on. Maybe someday I’ll understand why they do this but for those of us in the competition it was disappointing to put ourselves out there and not get any response to build upon.

At the end of the day, I was disappointed with my performance but happy to have participated. I had fun and learned that I need to step my game up big time for the next level. I made some new friends and reconnected with old ones and I have a shiny Bronze medal to show for it. I look forward to trying again next year and am sure that I will be much better prepared for the challenge.

The flow chart of wine

Sitting around a table with a group of wine pros the subject of Riesling came up and how it’s sold in restaurants. While I know that Riesling has had a renaissance over the last five years and is quite the darling on the coasts here in Texas it’s still stuck in a strange place. Most often it is the fall back wine for inexperienced drinkers looking for an alternative to White Zinfandel. It can be frustrating to put together a list of some of the greatest producers and greatest vineyards in the world only to have it broken down into sweetness and price. The guests just want sweet and the servers want to sell the most expensive one. So a bottle of Donnhoff Oberhauser Brucke goes to a couple that really just wants and alcoholic version of Sprite. Sometimes, you get to participate in someone’s epiphany which is fantastic but a lot of times it’s just completely lost and depressing. I’m a firm believer that you have to listen to the guest and get them the right wine for them not necessarily the most expensive one. If you find the right wine, you make a connection and earn a friend which is what hospitality is all about.

This got me thinking about Riesling’s role as the alpha and omega of the wine journey. The fruity character and refreshing acidity appeal to novices and makes for the ideal introduction to wine. It is eminently drinkable and fun. Unfortunately, there are dark forces ahead for most wine drinkers as they move along the path. So many people fall victim to the old saw that “Riesling’s too sweet” as if they don’t enjoy a Coke with a burger or a sugary Vodka-spiked concoction. Many wine drinkers are nervous about the approval of their peers and are pushed into wines that ‘serious’ wine people enjoy. Usually it’s oaky Cali-Chard or an inky Merlot then on to Napa Cabs or a side trip to Oregon and Sonoma for Pinot Noir if they’re lucky. Here is where the almighty branding takes hold and many drinkers become more concerned about what’s on the outside of the bottle than inside. (Don’t get me wrong, many of these are fine wines and scores of people are content ending their journey here with a pilgrimage to Napa to visit the temples along Rte. 29 and the Silverado trail.) They have reached the finish line of wine in their minds, but it’s really just a dead-end. Others will recoil at the pricing of quality domestic wines and find their fix in bold value wines from the Southern Hemisphere, especially the lure of cheap Malbec from Argentina. Nothing wrong with that either but another dead-end.

Some drinkers’ curiosity will take them beyond to Washington or more likely France starting with Bordeaux. The lure of overt fruit fades and developing palates look for earthy complexity and the secondary flavors that marginal climates provide. Many follow Robert Parker’s lead and head to the Southern Rhone for ripe juicy Chateauneuf-du-Papes and then up the river to Hermitage and Cote Rotie. As is often said, eventually everyone ends up in Burgundy (although there are perfectly compelling side trips to the complexity and tradition of Italy or the novelty and excitement of Spain and Portugal). The endless permutations of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Burgundy can provide a lifetime of stimulation. The beauty of Burgundy is it re-introduces white wine to those who have traveled the new world route and the exploration of minerality continues to Chablis and it’s cousin Sancerre. Not too many follow the path to the Loire but it’s a lovely road.

I believe from Chablis the most travelled path heads North and East through Champagne to Alsace, Germany and down to Austria where we end up again with Riesling both dry and sweet. It’s no surprise that almost every Master Sommelier adores great Riesling. At it’s best it is dynamic, complex and tremendously expressive of its site. It offers both the pure joy of its many flavors and the intellectual challenge that its many terroirs represent. Of course, this is not the finish line. We all know by now there is no finish line but upon ones arrival at Riesling again one closes the loop and all the various paths become apparent. I think that once you return to Riesling you are free to pursue all wines with an open mind and to accept them for what they are and not what someone or some score tells you to think.