Sunday, December 06, 2009

Sombudsman, Wine Cougars & Straddle Baggers

The O-N-D Chronicles

I got an email from my buddy, the Big Guy, early Saturday morning. “Enjoyed our lunch together. I’ve been thinking about the Blue Sky.” I had no recollection of what he was talking about, regarding the blue sky, so I called him. He reminded me of the late 20th century fondness by wine buyers, for having so many wines available. Bernie Madoff & Co put the kibosh on that. Large distribs were looking at their bottom line, trying not to lay off drivers, salespeople, admins. Small distribs were just trying to make payroll. Occasionally some of the great stuff would stick, but the brand names were struggling to stay on the shelves, on the wine lists. Robert Mondavi wines were no longer found in prominence. Meanwhile the young somms, working their way up out of the primal slime to some high and dry land where they wouldn’t get tugged back into the undertow, they were trying out their lines.

“You were a little tough on John,” B.G. admonished me. John's a somm who wanted to order some wine. I was all "just the facts ma'am" that day. B.G.’s been a friend going on 30 years now, ever since he pawned those five cases of Rafanelli Gamay off on me when I was a struggling wine bar manager. He had risen in the ranks, the hard way, and had managed to distinguish himself in the wine world. So I reckon he deserved my ear. Plus he had sprung for lunch. “At least you could have thanked him for ordering some wine. But you chumped him off; spit him out faster than a bad Pinot with mercaptan. When are you gonna play nice?” He'd made me feel bad, but that was a good thing. There are very few people who really can talk to me like that and do it with love. That, and I get to call him on his B.S. when he gets uppity. So it got me to thinking. What the wine world needs now is a Sombudsman – someone who can bridge the gap between the real word of economics, finance, supply and demand and the world of the Blue Sky sommeliers. We need both worlds – just gotta find a way to intermesh ‘em. B.G. is a likely candidate – an experimental rolling laboratory to get the needs of the present linked to the dreams of the future. I know this is probably getting a little too esoteric for most folks, plus I’m a little wordy these days, so I will leave it at this and plant the seed. I will be back. Later. For more.

Wine Cougars
Later that day I walked into my favorite Italian wine and food store in the world. I was jonesing for some eggplant. My latest diet was gotten me jazzed about vegetables and I love eggplant. My oldest dish, the one I’d “wine and dine” ‘em with in college, was this ancient recipe that my grandmas, my mom and my aunts taught me. It is my ultimate comfort food. But I was looking to do a few modifications of it, see if I could tweak it a little. Sausage Paul’s older brother, Johnny Cash-not-credit, always had a line of good produce.

It was Saturday and the store was buzzing from the cheesey-meetball-umami vibes from the sandwich counter. People were splayed all over the tables in food comas. Wine bottles were open, the espresso machine was cranking out an aria and all was well in my favorite Italian wine and food store in the world. Along the aisles, near Abruzzo a woman in endangered boots was looking for Montepulciano. Innocently I asked if I could help her. “I just got back from Rome, and we had this fabulous Montepulciano. It started with an “M”. Yes it does.

I could tell she wasn’t about to be allowing me within her force-field – I was a gnat – or worse – a salesman. So I backed off a little – what we call in the trade, creating a vacuum. After all, every known Montepulciano (from Abruzzo) was sitting there on the racks- save the Villa Reale which I had just sold. So I recoiled to let her graze.

She had a vexing allure – I identified her as a probable wine cougar. She liked her wines young. But she had just come back from Italy, so she was “in the know.” And - she still had her deflector shields up. Eventually we got it out of her that she was looking for Vino Nobile (remember egg and eggplant?) so I handed her off to S.P. He’s the guru of Vino Nobile.

She strayed back into the Abruzzo vector – maybe it was the smell and the feel of the Douglas fir racks that moved her out of her “sure-zone” – It seemed she wanted something – So I bit and opened my unfiltered mouth. “Well if you really want to know something about Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, I am really well versed in those wines.” I didn’t want it to sound like a brag; I was trying to be a love cat. And having been there 20+ times I figured I had some expertise in the subject. Maybe a little.

Nah. She wasn’t buying it. She had just been to Rome. She was “in the know.” No sale.

Straddle Baggers
Joey the Weasel calls me when I am there. "Hey have you seen Flip’s wine book?” Flip was a restaurant owner who was jettisoned out as driftwood into the wine world without a job. He took one with a small wholesaler. There are a few of those guys around. They used to be wine buyers with big important positions. People were scared of them, bowed to them, acquiesced to them. They were like gods. And then the business turned or their position changed and they were out beating the street with the rest of the peddlers. But they had been to the mountain top. They were prominent. And old routines are hard to break.

“No, Joe, I haven’t seen Flip’s wine book,” I answered. “Why?” I ventured.

“Well he left it at the store three weeks ago and was looking for it.”

Well maybe it is with that stack of wine he sold them that’s been sitting there for the last two weeks, uncut and unpriced.” Ya think?

Straddle baggers – aging wine geeks who have had to reinvent themselves but for some reason they don’t think the rules apply to them. You know - pay your dues, pay your dues, and pay your dues? Maybe it’s a fire in the belly thing. Maybe it’s languor. I see one of the peddler-gals, Brandy, out there hustling. She gets it. Young, confident, feisty, not afraid to ask for the order or get in someone’s face if they are putting their wine into her slot. I like her – she’s got moxie. The other day a gent walks in and want two cases of wine and he walks out ten minutes later with four. I’m filling up boxes of stuff and Brandy gets my attention – zap – 6 bottle of Rosso di Montalcino from her slot. Now that wasn’t so hard - all she did was make the contact and ask for the order – she got it – she thanked me for it - glad to help her – wish our people could hire folks like her.

As we put the pedal to the metal to thrust our way out of O-N-D, with barely a month to go, the bulls and the bears I find sure do make for some entertaining observations, all along the wine trail in Italy and everywhere you find fermented fruit.


Linda Hinton said...

I learned three new terms today, all in the most entertaining fashion! If we had more Sombudsmen, dealing with straddle baggers & wine cougars would be more bearable.
Thanks for the post.

Adrian Reynolds said...

I enjoyed the post but not sure what it was that I read! :-)

Alfonso Cevola said...

part of the O-N-D Chronicle series here:

David said...

Spot on!

"By the way, I had a nice bottle of wine at a restaurant the other night. It had a red label, can you tell me where it is?"

Alfonso Cevola said...


JonSomm said...

Another great post. And yes I see the cougars all the time.. It is sometimes hard for me to not turn off listening and working with someone when they mention at the start, "they just got back from Italy &.." before we even start talking about a wine they want.
Paying the dues is always hard and both sides need to work with each other. To many times I hear about associates in the industry playing the "bow to me I am the buyer!!" game and it really sucks. I have seen those that think it will be easy to just jump sides after being the high ups and wondering why they get no respect.. Paybacks suck.
Again another great post my friend.

tom hyland said...

"A woman in endangered boots" - I love it!

Yes, isn't it amazing how some people become instant authorities on Italian wines after one visit to Rome? It's amazing how these people don't want to admit they need to learn anything. Rather they say, "Look at me. I'm important."

Ron said...

A love cat is no match for a wine cougar, huh? Loved the neologisms.

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