Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Good Mentor: On Wine Buying

A few years ago, one of my wine mentors passed away, leaving me with a pile of wine books with notes placed inside them. Every once in a while I come upon one; they are like my continuing education from the other side. This weekend, while I was placing some of the books, finally, on my shelves, this one popped out. It looks to have been written (and mimeographed) in the late 1950’s or early 1960’s when he lived and worked in New Orleans. For what it’s worth, these suggestions still seem to have relevance in today’s wine world. Hence I am sharing them with any people who might be interested in them.

Wine Institute training sheet for wine buyers in restaurants – How to get what you want and have everybody like you.

1) Don’t overestimate and under deliver. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Consider the scale of your operation and work within the parameters. There will be plenty of time to become emperor of the wine world. Start with getting your wine list working for the times, the clientele and the economy.

2) If a salesman gives you a price sheet, and there are wines of interest on it, for God’s sake, file it and keep it handy. They don’t have time to be your personal secretary.

3) Take what you order. And take it when it comes in. Get it in your cellar as soon as you can. Those wines are your babies, take care of them. If you change jobs and the wine comes in that you made a deal for, find a way to make good with your supplier, it will pay off in spades.

4) Do you have a wine you like better than the one the salesperson is showing? Give him a bottle to try, don’t say anything; let him be the judge. He lets you evaluate his wine; why not confer that reciprocity on the salesperson? No one likes to continually hear about other wines that are better from a wine buyer or a sommelier. It gives you the reputation of a fickle wine buyer and shuts you out of special deals in the future. The salesman is only human; keep him close and you will get some of the cherries. As Dale Carnegie says, “If you want to gather honey don’t kick over the beehive.”

5) Take someone else’s word for a change, especially if they have experience or proven results that will make your business more money or more successful. The notion of ego Freud has been talking about lately.

6) Buy for your clientele, not for your palate, and when an advisor who might know more about your clientele or your business gives you counsel, listen to it and give thanks. And while you’re at it, keep your margins sane. If you buy a bottle of Chateau Lafite for $3, don’t gouge the diner by trying to get four times what you paid for it.

7) Stop trying to buy wine that isn’t available, wine that is in another storehouse, another state, another country. There is plenty to sort from. Take your opinion of yourself out of the equation and everyone will be much happier.

8) There is no room for lofty thinking in the buying room. You’re negotiating the sale of an agricultural product that is meant to give joy – not pain. Learn to integrate not just your expertise but your kindness. Think of your work as your neighborhood and your colleagues as your neighbors.

9) We have a saying here in New Orleans, “Danse √† la musique.” Take your place in the ballroom and make the best of it. Everyone will benefit from it, especially you.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The World of Italian Wine in 2009 ~ So Far

Looking at Italian wine sales, compared to France and Australia (their nearest world competitors on a case and dollar volume level, it is looking like Italy has taken the lead. Not to say all three categories aren’t below past years performances. However, Italy looks like it could pull it out this year and press on ahead.

Why? First, the wines are neither too expensive (Bordeaux and Champagne) or too cheap (shiraz and other cockfighting varietals)

Another reason? The ambassadors in the Italian restaurants, the interest in Italian wines by sommeliers (Italian wines, the final frontier) and dedication by wine and food shops who see the tie in to the ascending culture of American food and drink. We are becoming more Mediterranean by our eating habits. Good news for Italy.

And all this from a country that many people are still confused and mystified by their wine categorization and the sheer volume of choices. I have only one thing to add: Vive la différence !

Vintage photo by Vittorio

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Timeless Tranquility in Tuscany

The road to Querciavalle ~ June 1987

One of the great things about being on the wine trail in Italy for all these years is the precious opportunity to see the baton passed from an older family member to the younger generation. The first time I met the Illuminati kids, they were young teenagers. Now they run the winery and are my colleagues. One of my longest watched wineries in Tuscany is a little family winery, Querciavalle in Pontignanello near Castelnuovo Berardenga. Run by the Losi Family, the first time I went there was in 1987 with my friend Eugenio Spinozzi and my son Rafael, who was 10. It was June, the area was cool and sunny, and we sat on the second floor overlooking the valley all the way to Siena. The family brought out food, and I remember a little girl who was usually asleep in the arms of a mother or an aunt. Her brother was about the age of my son, and I remember they played around with a soccer ball while the adults tested the wine.

Querciavalle is one of those wines that I have never done justice to in my work. It is really a pretty wine, and it reflects the nature of the family. They are very unassuming, almost shy. They are Tuscans, but not the kind that forgot the land and their duty to it.

Yesterday I got an email from the little girl, who is now helping run the winery with her brother. Valeria wanted to let me know about the olive oil harvest, and she sent several pictures of the process with her short note:
“We have just pressed the new extra-virgin olive oil: people can taste the olive - fruity, bit of grass and leaves; it is a little bit bitter and spicy, but with a peculiar elegance and harmony. Finally, this is a really good year!!!.”

Every year when I go to Vinitaly I make sure to stop by and visit the family at their booth. Some of the original old brothers often show up; they are getting very old now. But the memories of them and their sons and now the young generation are a wonderful little piece of history in the making.

The wine is like a history lesson in the evolution of Chianti Classico. When I first encountered this wine, it was in the governo style, where fresh must is introduced into an already fermented wine. This was one of the original methods. White grapes were also used, Malvasia and Trebbiano Toscano, added to the Sangiovese and Canaiolo.

Over the years the family restricted the use of the white grapes for their Chianti Classico, although they now make a Rosso del Cavaliere Tranquilo IGT, which has the four traditional grapes in the blend. They also make an unparalleled Vin Santo and a priceless DOP extra-vergine olive oil.

Several years ago, they were really excited about some old vines they found in their property. The grape, which they called Grand Noir, was a teinturier, and the flesh was pigmented. We tasted the wine out of the tank and it was cave-dark and full of aroma. Could this be related to the Gamay Noir in Ricasoli's time?

Some of the older bottles of their Chianti I have go back into the 1980’s, when the wine was still made in that style. The wines are perfectly fine, reflecting the time and the temperament of the people at that moment in history. They are calm, bright, light and perfect. But they don't shout, they whisper.

What endears this wine to me is that it is not a blockbuster wine or a show boater. It is a wine that turns from the fashion and the noise of modernity. It has a timeless serenity about it. For that, it sometimes gets ignored. It doesn’t get regularly reviewed, and when it does by the likes of the writers who like beefy, jammy red wines, usually the reviews aren’t beneficial for broadening the base of their American clientele. Of course there are Italian writers who do praise the wine, but Americans have yet to read or take the time to plunge into the various levels of Italian wine-writing that is so much more intense than what we are offered in the States. But I am getting off course.

Valeria recently “friended” me on Facebook, so we stay in touch via FB and email. From the little farm in Pontignanello to the big cities in America, we are just a stretched-out neighborhood. I actually see Valeria and her family more often than some of my own cousins in my own town. But this thread of the vine life that stretches from her grandparents through her parents and now to her and her brother is a wonderful thing to witness. It is a relationship that shouldn’t be taken for granted. Nor should the wines be forgotten.

How are they tended? This is a family that has been stewards of the land for generations. They live in the land, are of the land and they depend on the land for their life and their future. Do they harvest by the moon and restrict poisons and artificial augmentations? I’m not sure they do the lunar cycle thing, but they do understand the ecosystem and work very hard to not damage the land. But they don’t make any claims to be biodynamic or even organic, at least not overtly. That is not the style of the Losi family.

If you ever have the opportunity to taste these wines, they are true Tuscan wines. No pretensions, nothing over-promised, nothing under-delivered. Wines, and friends, for life.

The road to Querciavalle ~ October 2006

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Moving Experience

This afternoon I was standing in the aisle of a super market looking at a stack of Italian wine. A good looking woman in her middle 40‘s, with a plunging neckline, motioned to the Sangiovese and suggested I try a bottle. “It’s delicious. And it’s Sangiovese. How could you go wrong?”

Indeed. She was making my job easier. In the rush to the holidays, folks are trying to be helpful, get those bottles of wine into hands, any hands, even if they sound like a pickup line. It got me thinking about what we do to get the wine to that point. There are a lot of hands that touch the wine that bring it to the front lines.

Indispensable is the hand of the winemaker. Young or old, male or female, the caretakers of the grape bring the wine into birth. With the help of nature and the sometimes unnatural persuasion of humankind, the humble grape tumbles into a life of wine and then on a journey across a planet to give joy and happiness to the global village of wine lovers. The winemaker is finishing their initial harvest work about now, except for a few late harvest projects in the northern hemisphere, maybe some ice wine in the northern regions. But in Italy, the wine has been put to bed, preparing for the next set of hands.

If it comes to the US or anywhere outside of Italy, usually an importer is involved. The classical importer is a person of discernment, one who knows Italy intimately and also has a working knowledge of the world he is trying to place the wine in. Some live in Italy, some in the US and some commute between the two countries. One of my dear friends, Eugenio Spinozzi, had dual citizenship and lived half and half. He was a global villager. But many people do this. The closer they are to the end-user, usually the better connected they are to the ever-changing realities of the marketplace.

Italy is unique, in my experience, from other countries, in that there are so many opinions and ideas on how to go about advancing wine. In some cases it is simply a matter of turning on the tap, filling up bottles, boxing them, getting a good price and that’s all she wrote. There is plenty of that. The good news is that those wines have gotten better and have helped bring more wine drinkers into the fold.

But then there are those forces of energy that look beyond a warm meal and a dry bed and consider the history, the finesse, the legacy of what they are doing in their daily lives. Those people inspire those of us who see this wine world as a lively and passionate way of life.

History has a place in all of this. In these times, it seems times past have been shuffled to an out-of-reach shelf on a cabinet, away from the sights of most people. And without history, especially in the last 60 or so years, the story of Italian wine is folklore and legend; many just stories with little or no anchor to the truth.

When people sit at a table over a bottle of wine it is like a drum circle, a bonfire, a tribal bonding. Every year at the wine fairs, and all through the year, this happens in Italy. All the time. Right now it is going on, this constant weaving of the story of wine, over a meal, maybe a fire, always another bottle showing up and conversation, endless conversation. Wine is the glue of the constantly evolving culture. Such a vital heartbeat it is.

And then there is the middle man and his retinue of colleagues, which help husband the wine closer to the user. I know the newer people in the business have little or no regard for that segment of the business, but without them Italian wines wouldn’t have gotten this far in America. Some of the giants who blazed trails, like Tony LaBarba of American Wine in Texas. I moan and whine about the flyover syndrome in these parts. Could you imagine what it must have been like in the 1950’s or 1960’s when there were few good restaurants, little to no wine shops and a population that was still under the spell of Prohibition? I cannot.

Ultimately the retailer and the restaurant owner are the ambassadors of these objects of good will that a country sends halfway across earth to share their bounty. And there are many, many kinds of people, with all kinds of ideas of how to go about proceeding forward. Today, in the supermarket, someone had to make it happen that a case stacking of Sangiovese was able to get to the point when a stranger could remark to another stranger about how nice that wine must be. It didn’t just magically appear.

The payoff? For me it is definitely at the table, where friend and foe alike take momentary refuge from the travails of gathering their daily bread. This is such a special moment in civilization, unparalleled in time because of the vast opportunities we have to celebrate it often and readily. And for that we have so very much to be thankful for.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Wine Week, So Far (looking for a wine of the week)

It’s just been three days this week so far but it feels like a week or more. Evening events, tastings, wine dinners every night this week so far (with more to come) along with full day’s work, working lunches even. And then there are the deals.

Two truffle wine dinners this week. I am all truffled out. Some lovely Nebbiolos though. The Produttori Barbaresco 2005 is gorgeous. I still can’t believe when Etienne de Montille was at the house recently, he was jonesing for Nebbiolo. Too much great Pinot Noir can be too much of a good thing? I reckon.

Before I head back to Austin tomorrow and before I go to bed tonight, I laid out 60 or so bottles of wine for the Becky, the wine of the week writer to try. “Can you be here at 9:00AM?” I asked her. So in a few hours after a little sleep and a caffe latte or two, we’ll get started.

I’ve written about this before, but every time it is different. Earlier in the week I took a stroll around the warehouse and looked over thousands of different wines, all crisp and cool and waiting to be adopted. I pulled out the wee gee board and chose wines from Italy, France Spain, South America, South Africa, New York and Texas. Very few of them looked familiar to me, but that isn’t the issue. We’re looking for sleepers, values and out of the choices, a gem or two. I had to laugh the other day when my friend Tom Wark was lambasting the three-tier system and claiming “What truly gives consumers in any market real choice and selection is direct shipment rights by out-of-state wineries and retailers.” Dear Tom, you certainly haven’t walked a mile in my shoes. That’s plainly inaccurate. Now whether we (or direct shippers) can sell all the wines we have at our disposal is another matter. And while I’m at it, how about this one?

An importer friend calls me and tells me a retailer has this wine that looks like it came from his import company and the customer wants to return it. My friend asks the retailer to send him a picture of the wine, front label and back, so he can determine the provenance of the wine. It turns out the wine had another importers strip label on it (grey market) and the wine had been heat damaged (possibly by shipping in warmer months). My friend mailed the retailer back and suggested they tell the customer to try and return it from where they bought it. It’s a hassle, boxing it up and shipping it back to California or New Jersey, if the retailer would even take it back. Bottom line, there still is a place for people to people business and as long as those of us in the wine business (via the traditional platform or the ones in the future) remember who the most important person is – that would be the wine end-user.

Sausage Paul was bubbly today. I went over to the shop to make sure his Tuscan wine sale was rockin’. And he proceeded to take me to the back room and show me all the great Sicilian pastries that just showed up, along with a bunch of wonderful dried pastas from Campania. Add to that the Pandoro and Panettones that arrived and the place has the Holiday feel. The only thing missing was a war bride from Calabria for Joey the Weasel. Sausage Paul was waiting around for him. Brothers in arms, they are.

As I stepped outside to go to my wine dinner, flying winemaker Chris Ringland was pulling up to go to dinner at a local spot, a BYOB place. He was in town to showcase his holiday sparkler, Bitch Bubbly. Chris, up since 4:00AM wasn’t too effervescent at that point. I’m sure the bottle of ’82 Mouton he sampled revived him a bit.

And yes, I am again officially rambling. But hey, it’s just a little blog by an obscure Italian wine guy in flyover country, what do you expect, Nossiter or Grahm?

A big shout out to Tom Maresca for jumping into the bloggy-blog world. Matt Kramer where you at, brother? Come on in, jump, Matt, jump. It won’t kill you. It hasn't killed Charles Scicolone. Yet.

So, bona notte y’all; con calma e gesso.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

O-N-D Halftime Report: A Three-Tier Crusaders Gamebook

Only 39 selling days till Christmas

There are all kinds of things to distract one in the wine business these days. Confluences abound, yet points of view are so diverse that to troll the top 100 wine blogs is to get a combination of blunt head trauma, whiplash and a serious case of confusion. The last week I have been going around in the car trying to sell cases of wine, and believe me it hasn’t been all that easy. And folks that I am talking to, they are saying the same.

So halfway through the precious holiday season of wine selling (and buying) we’re looking at a slow start. O-N-D, the October-November-December sales season is late harvest so far. There are a lot of unemployed and underemployed folks out there. My second trip to San Antonio in the last six weeks and what I saw on the streets near the bus station reminded me more of New Orleans, post-Katrina, than Alamo city. There are a lot of people on the edges, and not just folks we normally associate with in that category.

College grads, the class of 2009? The Millennials, who are supposed to help save and grow the country ibto a nation of wine drinkers? Reports have it that upwards of 80% of recent graduates are still without a job. And that would mean they are also without any kind of health care. Were trying to get folks to buy a bottle of Chianti for $7 and we have people who are trying to stay one step ahead of illness. Wine is a luxury to these folks. Cheese, bread, food has a higher priority right now. Really.

Austin was a little better. It is a contrarian kind of place and relatively affluent. One of the grads of 2009 (who is unemployed) tells me kids drive to Guadalupe (a main drag near the University) and get away from their car and beg for bucks. Tax free, but what a way to gather funds.

Houston this week, is looking like a town out of a Ridley Scott movie. The hotel we hooked for under $100 a night was four star and very bizarre. Sci-Fi hotel and folks looking for wines that we didn’t have. Meanwhile the wines we brought, folks weren’t buying so fast. Back to the drawing board.

And Dallas, what in the world is going on in this old home town over in flyover country? Well, Dallas is just plain weird. Last night we were invited a ball for a good cause. The dress was tropical. So our group read the memo and came to the party as requested. Meanwhile all of Dallas was decked out in black cocktail dresses and tuxedos. This is the story of my life in this town. I listen to the instructions and comply only to find a society mocking me with their conventions. It doesn’t just happen with Italian wines, it’s the whole gestalt. And online wine marketers think it is just rough for them because the laws and the system have been set up for the alpha-cats of the industry? Not from my perch. It just ain’t all the pretty in any area of the biz.

Speaking of, I headed over to Sausage Paul’s on Saturday to pick up my burrata. The place was jammed with shoppers. But I counted seven wine reps on the floor. About five too many. I got out as fast as I could, but not before a wine import rep accosted me and chastised me and Joey the Weasel for resetting the store. “Where’d you put all the shelf takers?’ He screeched. I explained that in order to clean the shelves which were dirty, we took all of the p.o.s. down. “You didn’t take yours down. Yours are all up.” He was a combination of pit-bull and rhesus monkey. I explained to him that yes I did put up shelf talkers, all new ones, many made by hand, on the spot. As if I had the exclusivity on hand-made shelf talkers. At this point I was starting to get irritated. Why? Because if I do something, it is for the client and the customers of the client. A retail wine store doesn’t exist for importers or distributors. It exists for the end-use customer. Period.

One more swipe, as if he were an out of work samurai from the Meiji Period. “I see you reset the store too.” At which point my coup de grace was simply, “Yes, and thankfully it was done by someone who knows what they are doing.”

I'd had it with this character, who once tried to tell me about DOCG, when I have made the study of DOCG’s and gotten closer than most in actually ferreting out their mysteries. In that same interchange he tried to convince me (or anyone around him that couldn’t escape the boom-varoom of his 300 HP voice) that a Barolo DOP (the new European classification) would also encompass anything made in the district, from Dolcetto to Barbera to Barbaresco. Huh? Barolo DOP now would be what we call Barbaresco? Is this guy nuts? And he is questioning whether or not Joey the Weasel and I know our way around the Italian wine set in a store? Maybe the three-tier system does need a little tweaking? Starting with bloviated reps that don’t do their homework and try to pass off B.S. to their peers and worse, to unsuspecting shoppers who are merely trying to find a nice white wine to go with their burrata.

And we are just halfway in the season. This could be a bloody Christmas.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Master Class in Gruner and Nero D'Avola at a local Bacaro

A cicchetti feast for vegans and a panino-fest for porchetta-lovers

How often does one get the opportunity to travel around a state visiting great wine people with a master sommelier like Damon Ornowski? Last week, while my amigo was noshing it up in Nashville with Kermit, we were terroirizing the Texas countryside with a car full of Gruners and Nero D’Avolas. An unlikely pair of wines from the polar opposite ends of Italy (the Gruner was off the map from the Wachau).

Last week in Houston, our rolling wine show pulled up to the steps of a friend’s new place. Lynette Hawkins recently opened up Giacomo’s cibo e vino on 3215 Westheimer (near Kirby). The concept is bacaro with cicchetti, a casual wine bar with small plates. This is a delight for carnivore and vegan alike, as the counter is filled with any number of delicious offerings. Tha place has gotten great early press from my twitter buddy @alisoncook.

But our goal was to meet up with a group of sales reps and sommeliers for a quick meet-up and a light lunch. The draw was Damon with his wines from Cusumano in Sicily and a selection of Austrian wines from Kracher, Hirtzberger and Domane Wachau. Great stuff and right before the Thanksgiving holiday some liquid food for thought.

Damon is a lightning bug of info, and he moves as fast as one too (the guy took two runs in one day while we were in Austin!). After a long day in San Antonio, capped off by a dinner at Il Sogno, Andrew Weismann's new Italian spot in the Pearl Brewery, we headed out early for the ride to Houston. All through the trip I kept wondering about all the great BBQ places we were passing. Thankfully it was too early and we had to be in Houston at 11:00AM.

Damon handled the wine details and I got with Giacomo manager Emily, who is as turned on to the concept of cicchetti as the able proprietressa, Lynette. I looked at the line of food and asked her for a little taste of everything for our group.

Within minutes small plates poured onto the table, fighting for space with the Gruners and the Neros. But a battle in which everyone won.

I have to say, I roll with some interesting folks in the wine business (starting to sound like an umami blog, hey Dr.P?) and this was no different. @JonSomm (Jonathan Hoenefenger of Tony’s) and I got into this deep chat about DOCG’s. Jon keeps me on my toes, and we had some fun flaring our nostrils at each other, trying to stump one another over the most esoteric of wines from Italy. Later in the lunch he mentioned the Nero D’Avola Bianco that he pours as the house wine at his restaurant (Damon made a note and emailed the Cusumano's about it on the way to the next stop). Scott Barber from Tesar’s in the Woodlands took the drive in to hook up with us, along with a table of intense and attentive salespeople and their clients. Darn, we are lucky to be working and living in these times.
"Hey, I'm really paying attention -
I'm just writing my tasting notes down"

The Cicchetti we had were wonderful (If you aren't a carnivore you would be very happy here - see the pictures):
we also had
cavolfiore in agro dolce roast cauliflower in caramelized onion vinaigrette
ratatouille roast eggplant and zucchini with sweet peppers, onions, tomato, herbs, garlic and olive oil
insalata di barbabietole roast beets with goat cheese, fennel, walnuts
tacchino tonnato poached turkey breast marinated in tuna sauce
frutti di mare salad of poached shrimp, calamari, fennel, herbs, lemon and olive oil
polpettini d’agnello spicy lamb meatballs
pollo ai peperoni chicken thighs braised with white wine, sweet peppers and onions

But the showstopper of the afternoon was Lynette’s panino di porchetta, a toasted sandwich of slow braised fennel and rosemary roasted Berkshire pork on ciabatta (with my full year's allocation of garlic). It was so good I didnt take the time to take a picture of it. It was so good I wasn’t even feeling bad about missing all that brisket and ribs we passed by on our way from San Antonio earlier.

And with wines like Cusumano Nero D’ Avola (rosato and rosso) and the Gruners from Domane Wachau, Hirtzberger and Kracher, it was hard to imagine how we would ever make the next three appointments (we did!).

Giacomo's cibo e vino
? A great new destination in Houston for wine and food lovers, especially if you are looking for pure and simple unpretentious food and affordable wine. Lynette, grazie e bravo!

Real Time Analytics