Thursday, April 26, 2012

Want an Award Winning Wine list and don’t want to pay $250 to the Wine Spectator? Lean in…

The past week has been busy as hell. I have found myself in countless restaurants in South Texas, West Texas and North Texas. That would be like saying you were in Champagne, Languedoc and Bordeaux. Or Piemonte, Tuscany and Sicily. And in fact, we have been tasting wine from those regions of Italy. And then some.

I was talking to a restaurateur today and he was grilling me about pasta. He really seemed to value my thoughts about the subject. I was humbled but honored. Likewise, I hope some of the wine directors I have run across this week are as curious about the wine regions I am so fond of. I have had tutoring this week from two of the best in the business, Bobby Stuckey and Damon Ornowski, both master sommeliers and both living in Colorado. They also travel extensively. They shed some light on the endless process of refinement.

What was so refreshing about talking with them and relating to them was that we all work in the same area of the wine business, and so I could identify with their experiences and apply it to my needs. My fervent wish is that I could offer up a punch list to wine directors looking to really make their wine programs top notch. So here goes.

When you are tasting wine with the regional representatives, winery owners, winemakers, marketers and local specialists, take a moment to break away from the tasting and the scores and ask a few questions:

1) What trends are you noticing in other cities, such as Milan, San Francisco, Chicago, Birmingham, Portland, Paris or Macau?
2) What are some of the emerging new grape varieties that you are starting to see having some traction in the market and in wine programs across the world?
3) What older, more common wines (Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Chianti Classico, etc.) are resuscitating and why? What are the attractive ones achieving stylistically?
4) How are wine directors pricing their wine in places you are working? Are margins shrinking? And there more successful ways of marketing wine by the glass besides by the glass?
5) What is missing on my list? What missed opportunities am I letting get away to my competition down the street or across the country? Do you see any blind spots? Any excessive “wear in the carpet?”
6) Is there a wine country that I need to learn more about for my own personal wine education?
7) Are there trends I need to avoid like the plague?
8) What should I do about people who are asking for sweet red wines (and not for dessert)? And what sweet red wines are really great finds?
9) What direction do you see Napa Valley red wine going in the next 5-10 years?
10) What should I do about Bordeaux?

There are more, but for now these ten should be a good start. I really believe if wine directors would mine their suppliers for information; this could be more beneficial than any 100 point wine or $100 American Express gift cards.

One last note. I was in an account today and noticed the wine buyer was treating a rep with some antagonism. These reps are your partners in profit and they also are your customer as well as you are theirs. The deal is this: There are 10 or 20 wholesalers roughly in a large urban area. But there are hundreds of restaurants. All of us have a larger choice of who we spend money with and where we go to dine. And while we all want to go where we look like heroes, in the final analysis, we want to go where we are cared for. And if we are making the client money, it’s the scratch-my-back and I’ll-scratch-yours syndrome.

Tonight I was in an account, very hard to get into. But they accommodated me and my guest. We dined well, drank well and tipped well. And we were made to feel as warm and welcome as all of the other customers in the place. That’s really all we are looking for. That we can also help turn a little profit for the restaurateur is even better. But we all want to feel valued.

Damon said it best to one of the young buyers when he told her that she had someone in her town who was one of the most knowledgeable people about wine, not just in this city but in the country. That person happened to not be a master sommelier, but it didn’t matter to Damon, who saw that person as his peer.

When I was a kid I’d go to the Boys Club and look for Vince Jadulang and try and play Ping-Pong with him, because he was the best player in the club. And he kicked my butt more than a time or two. But he also schooled me in how to be a better Ping-Pong player. Eventually I got pretty good. And then younger players would seek me out.

It’s all relative. Damon and Bobby are at the top of this here wine game, but they feel the need need to play up as well as the rest of us. If you are a young wine professional, seek out the better players, mine their talents. If they are any good they will gladly share their knowledge with you. After all, sooner or later we all have to pass this off to someone. And the only way this whole thing progresses is if the newer generation gets better than the previous one. Capisce?

written and photographed by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy

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