Sunday, June 08, 2008

Certified vs. Qualified

“You’ll never make it to Master Sommelier,” A friend recently fired across my bow. “And you’ll never make it to 60,” was my instant come back. We have a history of tagging each other that is otherwise benign, but stimulating.

Several days later, I was thinking my favorite thought. It goes like this: “So what?” It is intended to help me delve into a subject that I am hoping will be interesting for a post, an article, even a future book. Usually after about two minutes (max) I find something to straighten out, a shelf that needs dusting, a pile of shirts that need to be mangled. And that usually wiggles me out of answering “the question that must be answered.”

In the last week I have been in conversations with winemakers, sommeliers, merchants, writers, and restaurateurs. This has been the week where I have heard, many times, the subject of wine lists that have been put together by young sommeliers. And the response by many folks I have talked to this week has been almost uniform in that they feel these young wine professionals are assembling lists more to reflect their prowess than to address the needs of their diners.

When a wine list was assembled, let’s say in the classic period of the 1970’s, there was the custom to arrange the wines by region and to cover pretty much all the bases with regards to the kind of restaurant the wine list was for. If it was a French restaurant, then the regions of France would be represented, usually with some deference to Bordeaux and Burgundy. But Alsace, the Loire, the Rhone and Champagne would be there too. If it were a “Continental” styled restaurant in the United States, the format would be similar to the French but would also include a token Italian, some German wines of course, wine from Portugal and Spain, sparingly, and possibly some New World wines included to excite the newer diners. If it were an Italian restaurant, the regional list would be drawn up, and pretty well much across the US, the wine list would be the same. Perhaps a grower or shipper would be different from coast to coast and if it were in a region where the supply was weaker, the wine list would reflect that in a minimized expression.

California showed up on the world stage and along with Nouvelle Cuisine, and then New American Cooking, New World wines came to dominate. If a medium-range style of restaurant grew into a regional chain or even a national chain, the wine list would be small but utilitarian, usually boring. All the while people in the US were starting to drink more wine and get interested in different wines

About that point the rise in the American Sommelier started to eclipse the traditional Tastevin-carrying sommelier. That was about the time tuxedo-wearing waiters receded into the sunset. It was as if these young Turks had newly discovered wine for the first time (and for them it was just that). But certain mistrust for the traditions of the antique predecessors were planted and cultivated.

The Conspiracy of Gruner
When we started seeing 10 selections of Gruner Veltiner on by-the-glass lists, a few people mentioned to me that they thought the wheels had fallen off the wagon. Usually this would come from an industry person who had seen the slow growth of the wine business and was wondering why the young sommeliers were jettisoning all the passengers off the train. “They think they can force diners to drink what they want to drink?” was a comment I would hear often.

“The people will drink what I tell then to drink,” was one sommeliers response, similar to what Orson Wells character said about his readers in the famous movie, Citizen Kane.

If you include only what you like on a list, yes, the people will drink only what is on it. But if there are wines on the list that attend only to an educated palate, or a newly educated palate, or further, a palate that has been trained to evaluate wine based on a particular course of study, where does that leave the common person? Or the person who might have tastes that differ from the elevated tastes of the professionals.

I am in tastings all the time with people who aren’t certified, or don’t have 25+ years of experience, and it is important to be able to communicate in a way that brings them into the fold, allows them their validity in their feelings about wine. Am I always right? Hardly. Is the new wine drinker the expert? No, but they are the future.

Can we build a future with Gruner? Unlikely, but sommeliers will tell you that they have already moved on to Greek wines or Biodynamic wines or wines from the Jura or Valle D’Aoste or Patagonia or Tasmania. Taste is a moving target and the evolution of one’s personal taste is a journal of intellectual and emotional development. Hopefully a sommelier can understand how to communicate that journey to his or her clientele so that if will be an adventure, not a death march

Why Subject the Diner to One's Personal Path?
If you are a person with many interests, and curiosities, than your list can be seen as a window into your wine loving soul. Antonio Gianola has put together a really wonderful wine list at Catalan in Houston. He has taken the occasion to bring wines into his establishment for people who don’t have the time to go through all the wines that he goes through. He thinks about them deeply, is enthusiastic about the process, charges fairly, and when you have him come to your table he always has a great little nugget. And he’s got you at halbtrocken.

Yes he’s young and his tastes are evolving. But he has a good foundation, so where he is taking the diner and where he is going will be to good places. A discovery, not a drag.

The Dark Side of Wine Stewardship

Re: the case of another sommelier. Let’s invent one here so I can form it from the muck of my little compost pit in purgatory. I will call him Charles Kane. Charles (don’t call me Chuck and don’t call me Charlie) is pursuing his WSET, MS, MW and CWE. He is on track to become the world’s foremost authority on wine before he is 25. He has already worked ten years in a restaurant, six years in a winery (two as head winemaker) and started his own import company and spun it off to a Silicon Valley company and he is writing two books on wine along with having a book contract for his memoirs. That’s what his resume says.
He is currently working for a restaurant group from NY, as a wine list manager in one of their Southern satellite restaurant concepts. There is a core list he must adhere to (if the items are available) and then he has free reign to about 80% of the list. He has decided that this New American style of restaurant should showcase wines from small growers and suppliers, so he can have the exclusive bragging rites to all the great wines he has “discovered.” The restaurant also has a pretty lively bar scene.

Yes, Gruner is on the list, as are a few biodynamic wines from the Loire and Friuli. He also has a selection of highly extracted Malbecs (15+% alc) by the glass (starting at $12 for a one ounce taste). He has elected to not have any of the popular Champagnes or Proseccos. He has instead opted for hard to get (and hard to keep in stock) grower Champagnes. His wine costs are a staggeringly low 26%. And his bar manager is running a 16% cost at the bar. Mojitos are outselling wine by the glass, 2-to-1. And specialty drinks, usually fruity and liqueur based (from those same import houses that the sommelier won’t buy the Champagnes from) and they too outsell wine almost 2-to-1.

The good news? The place is making a lot of money selling alcohol. The bad news? They aren’t doing it by selling an overly-esoteric and overpriced selection of wines which showcase the superiority of the sommelier.

MP3, not LP
A Sonoma Chardonnay by the glass? “Why care about that?” he replies, “when they can drink a barrel-fermented Viognier from Paso?” How about a nice Pouilly-Fiuisse or Chablis, lets say something in the vein of Chateau Fuisse’s Les Brûlés or Jean Dauvissat’s Vaillons or Sechets? “Tired old appellations” he barks, “our customers are looking for new wines, exciting wines. They’re looking for MP3, not LP.”

MP3, not LP. That pretty well much says it for this kind of character who is flooding the wine lists lately with his condensed version of the Compleat Wine List. Kane’s is a Spark Notes rendering of The Current Fashion in Wine Lists. And just like MP3 is a compressed, low fidelity substitute for a full range recording, wine lists, without breadth and depth, are emerging.

OK, OK, not all of the New Sommeliers are making lists like this. But too many lists seem to be a testosterone-driven search for recognition so they can land the “big job”. Is it no wonder people are drinking Tequila and Vodka at levels once seen in the 1980’s? They are just looking for something in this information-tsunami world that they can recognize, and find comfort in that recognition.

It isn’t about the chops of the sommelier, about his or her ascendancy over all of the rest of us. It still is about the Customer and Their Happiness.

A photographer I once trained with drummed this mantra into me, “Just because you’re certified, doesn’t mean you’re qualified.”

Something for all the aspirants out there to think about. At least those who have managed to turbo-scan all the way to the end of this post.

[Next post: So what makes you (or anyone) qualified?]

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