Thursday, June 26, 2014

“We have become accustomed to constant change and instant boredom.”

"The business of wine buying is being handed over to a bunch of fireflies and their life span matches their attention span. It’s no longer about good or even great wines. It’s all about the next wine. Forget about the last wine, even if it was a quixotically unpronounceable and profoundly delicious wine like Txakoli."


Such was the conversation with a colleague last night over a plate of grilled swordfish and a very boring and mundane Chianti Classico we paired it with. We were talking about a young buyer that I had tipped my colleague off to. I said, “She’s young, she’s energetic. She wants to try all these new wines. She’s the future.” Or so I thought.

My colleague thought otherwise. "She may be the future but not as a wine buyer. Maybe as a poster child for what not to do. And she isn’t alone. There are plenty of 'gamers' out there, getting the trips and the gift cards and the long lunches, pretending to be the future."

Joyce Goldstein’s quote above, “We have become accustomed to constant change and instant boredom,” referring to the food movement in America (and noted by Steve Heimoff in a recent post) applies not only to food, as Steve mentioned. A small winery has to encounter many kinds of wine buyers in these days. But the newly empowered wine buyer who has yet to visit a winery or have a repertoire of flavors and tastes, they are calling the shots. They are the new gatekeepers. But they haven’t spent much time outside their gates. And the problem is their lack of experience (and narcissism) might shoot them in the foot.

I recall a wine buyer in an Italian spot, trendy, full of buzz. Courted by wine salespeople, invited to this and that event, made to feel important. When I bought wines off the list that this wine buyer was enamored with, twice, the wines were undrinkable. I cringed as I sent a bottle of Barbaresco back, knowing my chances of showing wine in the future would be impinged because it appeared I was being mean or cranky. A teaching moment it was, but the student out of sight, playing with their Coravin.

This whole thing about constant change has hijacked the wine industry and often the floors of restaurants. Bordeaux wines are no longer important. Forget the fact the Bordeaux is still the epicenter of the wine business from a financial perspective. The wines? Boring. Next.

Italy hasn’t been untouched by this relentless pursuit for the next big thrill. Nebbiolo isn’t good enough for you? How about some Albarossa! Satiated with Saten? Energize with Erbaluce! Sangiovese seems supercilious? Ciliegiolo to the rescue!

The Italian vineyard isn’t a landing strip. It’s a labyrinth. And it’s not for the attention deprived. It’s a long walk, not a cat walk.

Yeah, I’m concerned. I see all these great wines being passed over by channel-surfing wine buyers. And that is making the diners nuts. They come to a restaurant (at least the ones with disposable income) for comfort and pleasure, not to be schooled by a tadpole about disgorging wine tableside.

I heard a young wine buyer (I’m sorry, I cannot call them a sommelier, I have too much respect for that position) tell me, unabashedly, that they would rather sell a Movia than a Salon. I wonder how the restaurant owner would feel about that. We have lost sight of basic building blocks. This is unsustainable.

Recollecting the night the wine chap came up to me at the table. He was so excited about showing me this sparkling red wine from the Marche. “I think I have something for you,” he said “that you have probably never seen in America.” I’m going along with it, thinking how great this will be. Out comes the bottle, he pops the cork, pours it. Red, frothy, juicy. “Well, what do you think? Isn’t Vernaccia di Serrapetrona cool?”

“Yes,” I answer, “it’s very cool. Just like it was when I first brought it into this market in 1982.”

This happens all the freekin' time.

I remember a real knucklehead. He’d been to Italy on a student tour and got the bug. His deal was the “gotcha” wine. Problem was every time he brought one out it was an old friend. It was like he was trying to reinvent history to show him as the “discoverer” of the wine in America. Who cares?

I, for one, wish some of these young (and some not so young anymore) wine buyers would take their ego out of the equation and stop trying to be a Newton or a Darwin. Or a Lady Gaga. If you really want to be balls to the walls, take your butt to wine country and make the stuff, like Adam Lee or Hardy Wallace. Spend some time chopping in the woodshed. Oh wait, we’re not talking jazz, this is the wine business, where mastery is instantaneous.

The crazy odd thing about the wine business is how inclusive it is, not exclusive. You want camaraderie? We’ll bring a winemaker over and have lunch, become friends, come stay at their guest house in the Langhe or lux hotel in the Maremma. It’s that easy. But buy a bottle (or a case) of their wine if you like it and become a friend back to them. Maybe that’s the problem, we’re too inclusive, we let anyone in. And some of those folks think it was because they’ve actually done something, earned it. You earn it, everyday. It’s a pay-it-forward kind of thing.

The wine buyer who “left” the trendy Italian spot to pursue freelance “opportunities” might have blown the opportunity of a lifetime. People are nice to buyers. Sometimes buyers mistake that in place of their own personal social network. It’s still a business. I bring an owner of a winery to see you, we taste through eight wines, you seem to like them. The winery owner invites you to come and visit the winery when in Italy, stay at their apartment, dine in their restaurant. What do you do?

Buy a case of the goddam wine…quit looking for the next cool thing. It’s right in front of you. Pay attention. And while you're at it, take notes on the wines you are tasting. No one is that cool.



written by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy
wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W

8 comments:

Wine Curmudgeon said...

Not to worry too much, my friend. We went through the same thing with nouvelle cuisine, and it went away without hardly anyone noticing. Quality always wins out in the long run. The only question is how long the run is.

Bill Haydon said...

I had a memorable experience with one of these "young somms" recently. He spent thirty minutes picking the brain of the owner of an outstanding traditionalist Chianti Classico estate about various traditional fermentation tanks and barrels. After his free lesson, he bragged about running an Italian section that didn't have any sangiovese based wines, as if the estate owner would somehow be impressed by this. Now, nobody is demanding that Italian restaurants have California sections, but good God, has the movement for the next, obscure thing jumped the shark.

Frankly, I blame a lot of it on the MS program. In recent years, it seems to be about instilling an overpowering sense of smug, self-importance as much as knowledge, and these young somms are writing (excuse me, "curating") their lists as much to impress their mentors in the program and each other than aiming at what is in the best interests of their employers.

Perhaps, passing a test on basic business etiquette should become a pre-requisite to getting their first pin.

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks for your comments, gents.

Good point, Jeff...

Bill, I'm not sure I would place the blame on a particular program... While getting a pin (or the MS) is an aspirational goal for many, the character one brings to these challenges forges the path much more than a program, in my opinion. I know many sommeliers (Master and otherwise) who are humble and open-minded. Geoff Kruth is one who comes to mind. Having a conversation with him is a pleasure, for we both bring something to the table. It's when you have someone who is not open to discourse that shuts down the potential for interaction and discourse.

stefano said...

One of the issues I have is the extent to which the polarization has extended, from the outdo-the-other-som type to the curators that haven't dusted off their wine list in 20 years. It's so refreshing to meet the rare in-between buyers that are genuinely interested in trying wines and finding wines that fit their guests' profiles, not their own.

Do Bianchi said...

good point by Stefano about how a lot of this ego-driven nonsense comes from the sommeliers competing with one another and not remembering that it's really about the guest and the bottom line...

Daniel said...

Amen to the "buy a case of wine"...if you really liked the wine, and they have come to your business from thousands of miles away, the least you could do is actually put your (owners) money where you mouth/ego is!

Joe Roberts said...

So, where are these people? I'm seriously asking, because I've never encountered them. Which might be logical, because I'd expect their job lifespan to be pretty short. If they are beverage directors that act as described here, theoretically they would a) alienate / piss-off customers, and b) not move enough wine, and therefore c) get fired. Am I missing something?

Alfonso Cevola said...

They're out there. just long enough to muck things up and move on, but they're there. I run into them all the time...but you are right in that if they don't move enough wine (or move it with a healthy profit, or any profit) they usually don't survive for long.

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