Thursday, March 26, 2009

Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered

I'm wild again, beguilded again

What a confusing time. I have spent the better part of the week out in the trade and I have a headache. We are nearing the end of the first quarter and Vinitaly is just around the corner. What I have encountered this week, some of it has been good. Some of it has been downright bewildering.

Earlier this week my bees hive became overpopulated and the hive split. The new colony hovered over a tree limb as a storm approached. Eventually they made their way to wherever they were going. I love my bees; they keep my yard healthy and happy. And they keep the hornets away. The bees are productive, usually gentle creatures and I like working around them in my yard.

Likewise, this week when working out in the market, I ran into a group of young sommeliers, the future leaders of the wine scene in these parts. They were an energetic bunch of fellows who really seemed to be excited about the wine business. One wine several of them flipped over was a simple Moscato d’ Asti. We’re talking a 5.5% sweet fizzy wine. Not exactly like the 1988 Pichon Lalande that was on the table. But some of these somms just went nuts over this wine. That does my heart good, because to be able to appreciate a low alcohol, sweet fizzy wine for what it is gives one the ability to embrace all kinds of wines.

I was talking to Scott Barber, who was named Texas’ best sommelier in 2008 at Texsom. Scott lived in Italy for a time and loves to talk Italian wine. I was hoping to see him on this day, so it was fortunate that we ran into each other. He really has a passion for Italian wine in a genuine way. Such a contrast from a certain wine director that I have been struggling to find a communications equilibrium with. But more on that down in the post. Scott, born in a great year for Barolo and Aglianico (1968) really encourages me to keep climbing the mountain.

During a lunch with an Italian supplier friend of mine, she related an incident that happened to her. She went into a retail store to get a couple of bottles of her wine. She needed some to show to clients. She knew what she wanted. A sales clerk approached her and asked if he could help her. When she told the fellow what she was looking for, he attempted to try and sell her away from it. “What if I was a consumer? What kind of message would that send?” she said. Well, she was the consumer, and the message I took from it was that the wine she had come in the store to buy, the one she liked and wanted wasn’t, by the behavior of the clerk, thought to be a very good wine by the establishment that was stocking it. So if one of the wines that was in the store someone who worked there didn’t like, or was trying to sell the customer away from it, why would anybody have any confidence in that person to sell them something else? In other words, why would a store have a wine in stock if they didn’t have some small belief in the validity of that wine? I’ll tell you. The store has a private label, which has a greater profit margin on it and probably an incentive for the guy on the floor to push it. Ok, I understand that. But how about this: a customer walks into a wine store looking for a specific bottle. The clerk helps them find that bottle and then says, “If you like that wine, we also have this wine which you might also like.” He validates her taste and marries it to his other product. Bingo, a clean double. Ah, if the world only ran like I wanted it to.

But here’s the one that really blew my mind this week. One of the somms that I ran into works at a little spot. This spot decided to change up their wine list, “freshen it up”. They removed a wine from the list that I liked a lot, a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. In a year this little spot bought 117 cases of the wine. Over that time the gross profits in dollars, for that one wine, was over $40,000.00. But they took the wine off the list, because they wanted some new faces. Were the customers tired of the product? Doesn’t seem like it. I went and talked to the owners, I thought they understood what I was saying, seemed to agree. But is the wine back on the list? Not as of this time. Young somm just says it’s the owner’s decision. Young somm, if you don’t give good advice to your owner, you’ll be out of a job someday. That’s really the bottom line on that argument. Unless you like being unemployed.

There’s another hot restaurant in a tony part of town. Can’t get into the place. Two hour wait. Won’t take reservations. Young chef gets lots of ink. Young chef has worked in a fair amount of places in a short career. But young chef is “hot”.
Young chef told wine people,
“I’m tired of all you wine salespeople coming into my restaurant and taking up the time of my bar manager. It’s just wine, why are you all making such a big deal of it? People don’t come into my restaurant because of your wine; they come in here for my food.”
Some of these wine purveyors had been coming into his restaurant and spending a fair amount of money on his food. Why would they go back? I’m not interested in stepping into the place. But this kind of thing has been happening a lot lately. Brash and arrogant egos getting in the way of good business decisions. They come- they go. I’ve seen hundreds of them. I’ve gone to funeral of chefs who died before they were 40, because they thought the rules didn’t apply to them.

So, yes we aren’t quite on the wine trail in Italy on this one, but this is part of the Stations of the Cross we have chosen to carry up to our Mt. Calvary. You think they’d listen to some of us silverbacks.

Well, at least I’ve got Scott and guys like him to help me bear that rugged old cross. And somewhere I have to dig out that old ’68 Monfortino and pop it for the young bees buzzing around my hive.

Photos by Diane Arbus


Anonymous said...

As your rodeo friend said, the arrogant, impudent young guns have to eat enough dirt. You are in the right lane and so are your bees, amico.

tom hyland said...


You are a kind soul, so it's no wonder that you're often bewitched, bothered, bewildered, frustrated, exasperated, etc, etc, as you expect a high level of professionalism from everyone. I join you in that regard (I think people refer to us as perfectionists.

But sometimes I think you worry too much. While you are certainly right to knock that egomaniacal chef (he'll propbably figure it out someday, perhaps too late), I think you may be going overboard on the examples of the Abruzzo wine being dropped. You mentioned that the wine was on the list for over a year- face it, that's a good amount of time for a wine to be on a list.

I spent 7 years in the distibution business, so I have some insight into matters like this. Who knows why it was dropped? Maybe a new salesman took over the account and the owner didn't like him or her.Maybe it was time for the owner to do someone else a favor and get their wine on the list. Perhaps not, but ultimately, I don't think it's that big a deal. The fact that they didn't come up with all the answers that satisfied you doesn't make their decision wrong.

You're upset becuase you liked the wine and don't have the exact answer as to why it was removed. So lose this battle and win the war. I think your posts are great and you are right to take restaurants to task for charging too much for their wines, but I think in this case, you're making much ado about nothing.

Anyway, have a great, worry-free weekend and get back at 'em next week!

Tracie P. said...

it's nice to see a fresh and changing wine list, but it does no good to kick off an old and PROFITABLE favorite. it's bad business, and it IS a business, after all.

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