Sunday, March 17, 2024

The New Gatekeepers

This past week, it was raining hard, and I needed to walk my new knee. So I went to the local mall, NorthPark Center, which is enclosed and dry and has a lot of great art and stores. It also has Eataly, an Italian emporium, a dozen places to get espresso, clean bathrooms, and some nice shops. I am into watches, so I like to look at the new offerings as I perambulate my way towards new-knee health. But recently I’ve tracked a trend in retail, which I have been sensing also happens in the world of wine – the new gatekeepers.

Three incidents happened, almost at the same time.

This first one was in a watch shop. I’d avoided going into this shop, which arguably sells some of the most popular and iconic timepieces known to humankind. The company is extremely wealthy from the sale of their luxury watches, and  they have a foundation that donates millions and millions of dollars, yearly, to hospitals and other worthwhile concerns. They do good work. And their watches are flawless. They are also impossible to buy in their worldwide boutiques. But they have exhibition watches to try on and supposedly they have a waiting list if one hoped to buy one of their watches in the future. If not, there is a lively secondary market. And one will pay a 10-30% premium for the privilege of expediency. It is an odd setup. But world demand for these watches is off the charts.

Anyway, I waited behind a rope until the rent-a-cop gave me the OK to go in. I approached the table where the clerk was. We exchanged greetings and I explained to him that I had walked by this place probably hundreds of times but never gone in. “This is my first time in.” I got a “so what?” kind of look. I then told him a friend of mine was a big fan of these watches and I had noticed a watch on him that I liked, a Submariner. The clerk replied, “We don’t have any in stock, these are just exhibition pieces.” Not a, “Would you like to try our exhibition piece on your wrist and see how one might look?” No, nothing.

As the visit spiraled into what I considered an embarrassing and humiliating experience (one of the reasons why I never walked in the place until now) I realized this clerk was a gatekeeper, not a ferryman. He was not inclined to put my name on a list, just in case one of those watches showed up in the next few years. 

I was dressed well (Calvin Klein, Lagerfeld, etc.) and I had a nice titanium timepiece on my wrist (Bulgari Octo Finissimo) which should have signaled to the clerk that I was a serious watch person. We’re not talking about some backwater town in Mudville. This is a metropolis of over 8 million people! No matter, I could have been invisible for all it was worth.

So, I skulked out of there, wondering why the hell did I go in there in the first place? It was exactly as I had feared it would be – excruciatingly humiliating – all because a clerk decided to play gatekeeper instead of experience unfolder.

A few days earlier we were in the same mall and there was a new restaurant that had just opened. It was 3:45PM and they were having a happy hour. I went up to the front desk and a bevy of young, well-dressed women were waiting to receive us. First they asked if I had a reservation. At 3:45 PM on a weekday? No. Then they asked my name, my phone number, my email. I asked them if this was necessary, we just wanted to try the place out. 

They told us to wait, and they’d get to us soon. Mind you, the place was maybe ¼ full. I was getting ready to walk off and leave, when finally, someone said, “Your table is ready.” So, off we went, reluctantly at that point. Look, the table was never not ready. It was just a bullshit power play these folks were profligating on the old folks. Again, gatekeepers, not event unravelers. I will think again before going back.

We have a nice Italian food and wine emporium in the mall, and we like to buy food, eat and walk around and see the new products. I decided to walk into the wine department and ask about a wine I once saw there. I spotted a gent who I had noticed in there a bit, he seemed to know the lay of the land. So, I asked him if he had the Erbaluce di Caluso in stock. “What is the varietal,” he asked. “Erbaluce,” I responded. “From Piedmont, the Alta Langa.” I could have been speaking Klingon.

A small display of Erbaluce producers

“We have Gavi, Arneis, and other white wines from Piedmont, on the other side we have Sauvignon Blanc, etc. from Northeast Italy.” Yes, we have no Erbaluce.

I thanked him for his time and ambled off. I wasn’t looking for Gavi. Or Arneis. Or Sauvignon Blanc. Another teachable moment lost. (Then again, when I was in there one time, another clerk was trying to tell me Sassicaia had Sangiovese in it.) One would think, in a place like that, specializing in Italian wine, that the clerk would have been in the least curious? For God’s sake, they have a Trebbiano from Abruzzo in their “reserve vault” for $1,000! Erbaluce is not out of their league. Or is it?

All this to signal a wariness that I am seeing in the world and also in the wine world. And that is a growing cadre of gatekeepers, trying to keep people from experiences rather than ferrying them over into new territory. What, someone out there says? What about the young kids and the crusade to put natural wines on the map?

Funny you should ask.

I was reading a profile on a wine buyer in one of the hot culinary spots in our city. He’s all over the natural wine scene. I mean, you will not find anything in the restaurant, where he works, that you can find in Total Wine, Kroger or the mainstream wine world. OK, that’s fine, he’s focused. But when asked where he hangs out in his off hours, he mentioned a dive bar. Now, I bet the back bar is loaded with mainstream, commercially popular products like Tito’s and Crown Royal. So, why the double standard? Is it just posturing? Or simply, more of the trendy curated gatekeeping that is pervading the service industry?

Here's the thing – the folks we used to serve when I was a sommelier and a server, that we called customers, are now called guests. But now the guests need to be exposed to experiences that are curated by someone who is on a journey. It is no longer service. It is “we will show you the way, you know nothing.” That is what service looks like in 2024. Welcome to Huxleyville.

We need fewer gatekeepers and more ferryman and women. Better listeners, not self-brand ambassadors. Devotees to service and study. 

Like the ferryman Vasudeva said in Siddhartha. “The river has taught me to listen, from it you will learn it as well. It knows everything, the river, everything can be learned from it.”




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

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