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When experts get stuff wrong

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Matt Kramer is Wine Spectator’s best columnist. He’s fresh, witty, smart to the point of intellectual, and he doesn’t repeat himself by writing the same old thing over and over again (which suggests also that he possesses good taste). He also can own up to his mistakes, which he has done in the June 30 issue.

In it, he admits that he got Syrah “so wrong” when he predicted, in 2003, that it was “the most exciting wine in America,” more so than Pinot Noir. In fact, he believed Syrah would be “the next really big red.”

He should have asked me fifteen years ago. I would have told him, No, Matt, I’m afraid that’s not going to happen. If Syrah ever had a chance, it was back in the late 1980s-early 1990s, when there really was an opening for a “next really big red” that wasn’t Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot or a Bordeaux blend.

After all, that time period, 1989, was when Matt’s own magazine had its famous cover story on the “Rhone Rangers,” featuring a photo of a masked, costumed Randall Grahm, reaching with his right hand for what appears to be a bottle of wine in his holster and wearing pants that are just a touch too tight. The Rhone Rangers in fact became so famous in the industry so that, around that time, a group of the leading producers from the Rhone Valley came all the way to the enemy camp, Napa Valley, to sniff out what they were up to.

I would have bet even money in 1991 that Syrah would explode in popularity, but alas, it never did, and today vintners still occasionally can be heard wondering why the category simply collapsed (unfairly, in my opinion, but that’s reality). I’ve explored this several times in my blog and won’t do it again, for the question I want to address today is what happens when famous wine critics get stuff wrong.

That they do is obvious. Wine critics are only human and, being thus, they are fallible and subject to inaccuracy. We like to believe that our leaders, whether they be shamans, priests, Presidents or wine pundits, speak unerringly (and they like it when we so believe) but of course, everybody gets stuff wrong. Even Einstein concluded he’d been wrong about his cosmological constant (although more recent research suggests he may have been right after all).

However, the wine world is replete with critics getting stuff wrong. This runs the gamut from incorrect ageability predictions (common as dust) to prognostications of what’s hot and what’s not (cf. Matt Kramer). Wine critics commit, not only sins of commission, but sins of omission, such as a failure to overlook quality in brands they are not receptive to. Now that we’ve discovered critics can be wrong, what should we conclude about their real bread and butter, the wine review?

Well, the question answers itself, doesn’t it? This doesn’t invalidate the role of the wine critic, it merely puts it into perspective. Any given wine review is only partly accurate; this can be proven by asking the critic to repeat the review a second time, even a third time, but under blind tasting circumstances. (This is unlikely to happen very much, for a variety of reasons.) With this observation I now segue into the world of the gatekeeper, and specifically the sommelier. Did you know that some somms actually work against the best interests of their clients, who are the diners who eat at their restaurants? This was brought home to me the other day by someone who deals frequently with somms on a professional basis. He told me of a Bay Area restaurant, which I will not identify, whose wine list is so esoteric (Hungarian Juhfark, Republic of Georgia Kisi, Slovenian Rebula) that many customers end up bringing their own California Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon and pay the corkage, just so they can have something they like. To add insult to injury (according to my source), the restaurant’s somms then make the wine-bringers feel like village idiots.

Those somms also are getting something wrong: fundamentally, inherently wrong. It’s fine to suggest new and different things to customers, but you also have to respect their own preferences. There’s something horribly ideological about a restaurant insisting that everything its customers like is inappropriate, simply because the fact that the customers like it is de facto proof it must be pedestrian. Wine already suffers from an elitist image, and sommelier behavior like that only adds to the problem.

So if wine critics and sommeliers can get stuff wrong, can wine bloggers? Submit your answer to me written on the label of a bottle of 1947 Cheval Blanc. Winners get a free lifetime subscription to steveheimoff.com.

  1. Love this piece, thanks! The whole Syrah thing never took off because, in my opinion, the styles were wildly divergent. People love the wine when it presents with a pure fruit aspect but most people did not take to the funky, earthy aromas some wines displayed. Pinot Noir has a more consistent profile, with plenty of subtle differences, and people could latch onto that – having more confidence in what they buy.
    As to the arrogance of certain restaurants/somms, it galls me to no end. I recall the opening of a restaurant in New Orleans that chose not to carry white zinfandel. Not just avoiding listing it, while making it available, but not carrying it whatsoever. They would push a German riesling on the customer instead. This lasted a few months before they knuckled under, as I recall.
    Another refused to carry white zin for a while but would make up a concoction of white wine, some fruit juice(s) and grenadine for guests who ordered a glass…apparently it was received well and worked fine…until the happy consumers ordered a bottle!

  2. Bill Haydon says:

    Look, I know that a few of these somms can be insufferable, and I’m one usually bringing them wines of interest. I know that the self-important ridiculousness some attach to the MS program (hint: it’s 90% rote memorization and not the equivalent of a Ph.D in any sense) is annoying, and there is no excuse for rudeness in a service industry. But these examples are a tiny minority, and I deal in two of the most somm-centric markets in the country. The overwhelming majority have a passion for wine that is no longer straightjacketed by the edicts of Parker and Laube, and they are excited to bring the best wine list that they can to their guests.

    This, ultimately, sounds like nothing more than sour grapes because Calijuice is no longer the cool kid on the block. What I find amusing is that I never heard all of this outrage and angst directed at sommeliers from California quarters a decade ago when big Parker scoring cult wines were in vogue among them. Nobody was complaining about the “gatekeepers” then. It’s only after they’ve tired of your wines that there’s a problem.

    The restaurant that you mention sounds like more of an outlier and straw man than anything else. What I see happening is that the restaurant of 2002 has replaced 90% of its Calijuice with things like Chablis, Muscadet, traditionaliste producers from Piemonte and Chianti Classico, Cru Beaujolais and Trocken Riesling, and while the Slovenian orange wines or obscure Hungarian and Greek varietals are present, they are rarely the focus of the lists.

    And as for this restaurant or any other restaurant, if one doesn’t like their list, patronize somewhere else. It’s as simple as that. The overwhelming majority of these somms are also not owners where they work, and they are ultimately answering to the market and their bosses. Are people coming to the restaurant? Are the wines selling? Is inventory turning over or backing up? From what I’ve seen most are doing quite well.

    At the end of the day, this as a maturation and increasing sophistication of American wine lists that has gone hand-in-hand with the development of American cuisine. Anyone seen any Trotteresque architectural dishes lately? Nope, and the days of the hedonistic fruitbombs to accompany them is similarly over and not coming back. People need to understand that and quit looking for scapegoats.

  3. I agree with your general premise, but find it somewhat ironic that you use opinionated hearsay as your main supportive evidence.

    I’m sure that another person that deals with this mystery restaurant would conclude that the SOMM is doing customers a great deal of service by providing interesting wine options that few other restaurants provide. The wine-bringers (at least those that bring large-production plonk) insult the somm’s expertise.

    If a business is supposed to only offer what the most people want, all burger shops should have Golden Arches and Maserati might as well stop selling cars…

    But, yes, it is nice, but rare, when experts admit they’ve gotten something wrong. Too often those experts ignore the error and those who have called them out on it.

  4. “doesn’t repeat himself by writing the same old thing over and over again”

    As if on cue, a comment from Mr. Bill Haydon about “calijuice.”

  5. Couldn’t agree more with your take!

  6. Bill Haydon says:

    Dan, the problem lies in yourselves (and your wines and terroir), not in your stars (and somms).

  7. Bill,

    The success of Bonné’s recent book would suggest otherwise.

  8. Bill Haydon says:

    Dan,

    And I’ve repeatedly praised Bonne’s book in many comments here along with the new group of wineries that he is triumphing and more importantly winemakers like Bob Sessions, Jim Clendendon and Steve Edmunds who stayed true to themselves and made well balanced, non-fruitbomb wines when it wasn’t popular to do so. They are California’s only hope at regaining any traction or relevance with the younger somms because to think that those somms will suddenly return to fruitbomb styles of wine is the height of Napa hubris. Adapt or die…..or at least resign yourselves to selling your hedonistic fruitbombs to suburban country clubs.

    For any truly venemous criticism of Bonne, you’ll need to look a lot closer to home, for it is coming from those Calijuice peddlers who want to bury their head in the sand and believe that nothing has changed or ever needs to change in their perfect little Pleasantville world. They–along with Fat Bastard–are watching their relevance slip away by the day and are the ones lashing out at Bonne, not me.

    I’ve never said that California can’t make well balanced wines. I just maintain that much of Napa is unsuited to do so, and attempting to force the round peg into the volcanic soil will lead to a lot of cabernet with unripe fruit flavors and green phenolics, thus the conundrum of what’s a Napa winemaker who wants to be relevant in the big city wine bars and Michelin starred restaurants to do?

  9. Steve,

    Great blog entry, you know me: I can talk about Syrah all day… People who have successful endeavors take risks – whether it is in business or art or science or writing about wine. It is absolutely fine to be wrong and a sign of class to be able to admit so.

    You now inspired me to make a “Cosmological Constant” Syrah blend… What do you think, shall I add some Kadarka to it?

  10. Bob Henry says:

    Bill,

    What do you think is the “half life” of a young somm’s tenure in a restaurant?

    By extension, what do you think is the “half life” of a newly-opened restaurant?

    Young somms can’t be influential if:

    (1) they burn out from the long hours and “churn” out of the industry [see the discussion on Blake's blog: http://blog.wblakegray.com/2014/05/most-master-sommeliers-are-somms-in.html ],

    – and –

    (2) the restaurant goes out of business due to misreading the tastes of the public, or mismanagement.

    Finally, I am unfamiliar with your background.

    When you write . . .

    “Look, I know that a few of these somms can be insufferable, and I’m one usually bringing them wines of interest.”

    . . . do you introduce compelling wines to somms because you work in the industry, or through your passion for food and wine as a patron of restaurants?

    If it is the latter, I’d like to you your thoughts on this related question: are the opinions of young somms you meet worth listening to? Do they have the gravitas necessary to serve as “opinion leaders” and “taste makers”?

    ~~ Bob

  11. Bob Henry says:

    Erratum.

    “If it is the latter, I’d like to KNOW your thoughts on this related question: are the opinions of young somms you meet worth listening to? Do they have the gravitas necessary to serve as “opinion leaders” and “taste makers”?

  12. Bill Haydon says:

    Bob, I’m on the supplier side (imports) working primarily in NYC and Chicago and to a lesser degree Boston, DC and the extended Great Lakes region. Regarding your questions:

    Who can tell the half-life of a restaurant. Some fail in their first year. Some have a good three to five year run before losing steam. Some become institutions lasting over a decade while remaining as vital and fresh as when they opened. I agree that some fail because they misjudge their market. The thing that I’m seeing though is that these restaurants with Euro-centered and esoteric wine lists aren’t failing; they’re thriving and multiplying. Sure some don’t make it, but when a vastly greater number succeed, clearly the wine list was not the catalyst for the business’ failure. Quite the contrary, the only all-domestic wine restaurant that I can recall opening up in either NYC or Chicago in recent years (Grass Fed in Chicago) didn’t last 24 months; whereas this place (http://rootstockbar.com/wine-list) is going on its sixth year of business and is packed every night of the week. In Chicago a couple of years ago, there were three small distributors who focused exclusively on small-production California wines. Two of them have gone under while the third survives by selling mostly to country clubs on the North Shore and is a completely irrelevant presence in the city (burns through a new rep every 6-8 months). So yes, some people are going out of business by misjudging their market. I’ll leave it up to you to discern whom.

    Somms in NYC and Chicago generally stay in one job for around two years. Most by their mid-30 have moved onto some form of supplier job. As for their gravitas, that’s a hard question. Some are immature, unprofessional and quite frankly starkly under educated to have much gravitas. Others are thoughtful people who went to well respected colleges prior to getting into the wine industry. Somms are a mixed bag and not the easily stereotyped caricatures that some in the California wine industry would like to present them as. And like I posted above, most of this is simply sour grapes. I never heard it a decade ago when Napa cult wine still had a prominent spot on their wine lists.

    And quite frankly, I’d like to know the name of this straw man wine bar. It sounds more apocryphal than anything: the snotty sommeliers forcing their customers to drink Casavecchia and Assyrtiko while the noble, but beleaguered, customers braving ridicule and scorn brown bag their California cabs and chards into the restaurant. It sounds like a bitter grapes story that people in Napa are telling each other more than anything based in real life.

  13. Bob Henry says:

    This week in Los Angeles a trade tasting of Greek wines had hosted by a single distributor.

    (First time I can recall such a “theme.”)

    Three whites and about twenty reds.

    One white reminded me of a cross between dry Alsace Pinot Gris and Muscat. No ML. No obvious oak. A pleasant quaffer.

    More than a few reds were stylistically similar to high Merlot percentage red Bordeaux, without the charred oak barrel bouquet. Again, some pleasant quaffers.

    So I can see the appeal of certain Greek wines in restaurant sommeliers: they aren’t fruit bombs, aren’t high alcohol, aren’t heavily oaked, and don’t get in the way of the cuisine. And the price points are agreeable.

    But given that Greek is a foreign language, and none of the nomemclature is familiar to Americans (including “in-the-know” wine industry professionals), they will remain a “hand-sell” at tableside or on wine store sales floors.

  14. Bob Henry says:

    Ugh! The tyranny of typos. Once again, with clarity:

    This week in Los Angeles a trade tasting of Greek wines WAS hosted by a single distributor.

    . . .

    So I can see the appeal of certain Greek wines TO restaurant sommeliers -

  15. Bob Henry says:

    Steve,

    I’ve let this statement “ferment” in my head before responding to it:

    “. . . some somms actually work against the best interests of their clients, who are the diners who eat at their restaurants?”

    I demur.

    The “client” of a sommelier is the restaurant owner.

    The employer who pays his or her salary, benefits, and ancillary expenses.

    In exchange, somms are expected to generate a “lift” in the restaurant’s incremental revenue.

    Fail to do so, and you don’t have a job long-term.

    So if the somm’s esoteric wine list “flatters” his or her ego or “wine insider” professional reputation but fails to get any traction with the public, that somm has failed his/her mission.

    One of the grievous errors in business is “self-referential marketing”: deludedly thinking that your “discerning good taste” is equally shared by the public.

    Such aspiring “taste makers” end up appealing to an audience of one: Themselves.

    And when the business crashes and burns, they are left wondering “why” they failed.

    The most successful businesses are “consumer-centric.”

    So its okay for (say) the late Jess Jackson to create a wine empire based on mass appeal “cash cow” wines, if that allowed him to experiment with riskier small production, more limited appeal artisanal wines.

    For those who are car enthusiasts, it is the deep pockets of parent company BWM that bankrolls the existence of Rolls Royce; Fiat that bankrolls Maserati; Ford that previously bankrolled Jaguar and Land Rover; Volkswagen to bankroll Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini, and Porsche.

    The R&D that goes into “flagship” brands filters down over time to mainstream products. We all benefit from that diffusion of technology and diffusion of knowledge.

    And it is no different in fine wine.

  16. Bill Haydon says:

    Bob, you get the first part right. You’re absolutely right that somms have to answer to their bosses. As I’ve said before, if people aren’t coming, if they’re not ordering wine, if inventory is backing up rather than turning over that somm is not long for his job.

    Regarding the second, maybe–just maybe–in cities like SF, Chicago and NYC, those somms do understand their customers because it sure seems as though those restaurants are thriving (admittedly I’m much less familiar with SF). They understand that their customers are not looking for cookie cutter steakhouse lists full of grocery store brands when they walk in the door. Again, the market seems to be suggesting that the somm at Rootstock (or SF’s mystery restaurant) might have a better grasp of what his customers are looking for than the regional KJ salesmen, whose singular job is to get the KJ placed with ZERO regard for whether it is appropriate for that restaurant or would go over well with that restaurant’s customers. Consumer centric does not have to mean “lowest common denominator.” Most Americans (hell, most wine drinking Americans) aren’t going to appreciate Alinea, yet Alinea does what it does for its market, its segment of consumers, and it does it exceptionally well. It’s wildly successful both critically and commercially, so why should it dumb things down.

    I’m also willing to wager a case of Casavecchia that this mysterious strawman restaurant in SF is not devoted solely to mysterious, indigenous grapes. While they might be featured prominently, I’ll bet that 80% of the wines that are crowding the California wines off the list are much more common things such as Chablis, Muscadet, Barbera, Southern Rhones or Northern Spanish. I have a hunch that it just makes a much better story for the frustrated Californians to tell themselves if the restaurant is solely devoted to the obscure.

    As for K-J’s “technology and knowledge,” they can keep it. I don’t need unfermented muscat must blended into my Charodnnays. I don’t need spinning cone technology, reverse osmosis, ozone bubbling, megapurple and god knows whatever else they’ve developed or adapted into the making of their wines.

  17. Bob Henry says:

    Bill,

    Those technologies you cite — spinning cone technology, reverse osmosis, ozone bubbling, and other unnamed practices — were not invented by, or exclusive to K-J or the other “big boys.”

    And I suspect that a lot of smaller, less well-funded family wineries are grateful for their invention if it helps (say) salvage a “stuck” fermentation or the mildewy/moldy conditions that afflicted the 2011 vintage in some parts of California.

    After all, they get one shot at producing a revenue-generating harvest each year . . . and few have the financial resources to sustain a fiscal year without an income.

    ~~ Bob

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