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When sommeliers go wild

44 comments

 

“There is a group of wine directors out there that feel that their mission is to educate the consumer. I think this is a dangerous philosophy. If people want to ask questions, fine; but if you’re going to stand there and proselytize, well, check please.”

I didn’t say it: The immortal Fred Dame, M.S. did, in the August issue of The Tasting Panel magazine. (Sorry, I could not find a link.) So if you’re a somm with hurt feelings, don’t blame me, play the Dame game! But seriously, this is an important topic Fred alludes to, because it addresses some of the most controversial questions in today’s restaurants: How to best serve the customer who, after all, is the basis of the entire industry? And what exactly is the proper role of the sommelier?

The somm arguably is the most informed person about wine in the restaurant on any given night, especially when it comes to her own wine list. She knows more than 99.9% of the customers do. The risk is that there can be a tendency on the part of very knowledgeable people to showcase their knowledge to others, especially when they’re getting paid to do it. This can be tendentious, even tiresome, if done with a heavy hand. Or it can be interesting and educational. The somm has to walk a delicate line, trying to find that balance. I take Fred Dame at his word when he talks about “a group of wine directors out there” who cross over the line. He knows a lot more about the world of the sommelier than I ever will, so when Fred says something is happening—and that it’s “dangerous”—we should heed his words.

This relates directly to the area of the overly-precious wine list. I think I’ve mentioned before on this blog about the phenomenon, which seems to be on the rise, of the wine director whose wine list is so arcane, so dominated by obscure countries and varieties, that average customers, frustrated at not being able to find things they understand and like, ask if they can just have a nice Chardonnay! It’s perfectly understandable for a somm, who’s worked long and hard to get where she is, to have developed a personal preference for obscure wines. It’s also understandable that the somm would then want—passionately—to share those wines with her clients, the diners. There’s joy in pedagogy—but not in pedantry.

I “get it” when somms get bored and tired of the same old popular wines and varieties. I used to get tired of having to write the same “what wine to drink at Thanksgiving” article every year! It’s a form of burnout common among sommeliers, wine writers and many other people who perform repetitive functions.

But it seems to me the sommelier has to put her own feelings aside, in favor of those of the customers. I myself have generally good experiences with sommeliers, but etched into my memory are some awful ones. The bad ones all have this in common: The somm pushed his or her own agenda onto me, with disastrous results (from my point of view). Being a rather gentle and non-confrontational soul, I almost always refrain from negative feedback to a somm or a server, even when I’m unhappy with the way things turned out. This may avoid an unpleasant scene, but it doesn’t do a thing toward making my restaurant experience more pleasant.

I’m willing to let a somm advise me about certain wines with which I may be unfamiliar. This is especially true if (a) the somm can bring me a little tasting sample of the wine he wants me to try, and (b) I have a guarantee that, if the suggested wine fails to meet my expectations, I can substitute something else for it, and not get charged for the first glass. (I would never gamble on a full bottle of a wine I knew nothing about, based merely on the somm’s advice. Way too risky.)

But I don’t want a somm, or anyone else in the restaurant, second guessing my preference, or making me feel like an idiot, just because I want a rich, barrel-fermented Chardonnay with my scallops. I don’t know if that is specifically what Fred Dame had in mind by his “dangerous” remark, but since we’re all in the business of trying to get people to like wine, it’s not a good idea to alienate them with pontification, pandering or pretension.

  1. I read the same, and totally agree with Fred.

    But I feel compelled to note that I’ve never encountered any such somm “in the wild.” Not once. Either I have been lucky, or generally we (the entire wine media biz) are overstating the threat, so to speak.

  2. Bill Haydon says:

    Again, who are these somms and what are their restaurants? Stop tilting at windmills and start naming names and linking the lists; otherwise this comes off as little more than an exercise in sour-grapes. I am willing to grant you that some who conform to your stereotypes do exist, but I think you want to extrapolate a few extreme examples to taint the larger group in the service of a much larger issue. As for Fred Dame, I’m sure that his day job working for Southern Wine and Spirits is not influencing his judgement at all about these somms daring to stray off the reservation.

    What this really comes down to is somms aren’t terribly interested in California wine, but what is crowding your buttered popcorn Chardonnay off their lists are not the strawman wines you like to name…..the Slovenian Orange wine, oxidized obscure Portuguese varietals or esoteric Greek varietals. What’s really taken the place of the Cali fruitbomb are things like Trocken German Riesling, Muscadet and Albarino along with better balanced, cool-climate and limestone grown Chardonnays from Chablis, the Cote de Beaune or Monferrato Hillsides. Now if you think those are weird, esoteric wines, I feel sorry for you because you don’t know much about wine outside of California.

    And guess what, I know more about the fine wine markets in NYC, DC and Chicago than either you or Fred Dame ever will, and I don’t see these restaurants, with their Euro-centric winelists–struggling one bit. I don’t see ANY savvy restaurateurs attempting to fill a perceived gap in these markets by opening restaurants that feature domestic wine. Perhaps–just perhaps–in some major cities, these wine lists are actually reflective of what the mass of customers want. These places aren’t going out of business. Owners aren’t firing somms for loading up on unsellable wine. The market, in fact, might actually be acting to meet demand, but that is a concept far too frightening for the Lords and Ladies of Napashire to stare down much less actually attempt to address. It’s oh so much more soothing to just blame the gatekeepers and their infatuation with weird wines nobody wants.

    In the meantime, I hear Napa Valley will soon have its first “dwarf-themed” winery in the Yountville hills. I’m sure that will do wonders for its image among both serious sommeliers AND wine consumers alike in the larger cities.

  3. One small true story to illustrate the absolute correctness of the Dame/Heimoff theme.

    Commonwealth restaurant, an otherwise interesting place to eat, has just such a list of unknowns. When asked about it, the somm responded, “What the customers want is not important”.

    Oh, OK. One more. Spruce Restaurant, an otherwise fine place to eat, has zero CA sparkling wines on its list. When asked about it, the somm responded, “All CA sparkling wines are low in acidity and too sweet”. She was technically full of gas, of course, because folks like Schramsberg, Iron Horse and Roederer Estate make wines with very high acidity, dosage the equivalent of Champagne, but this know-nothing simply lumped all CA bubblies in one basket without even an attempt to know better. Needless to say, I refuse to go back to Spruce.

    Want another? The Slanted Door, when I once patronized it, had ten French bubblies, most of then Cremants. When asked why he had no CA bubblies on the list, he responded “because they don’t go with our food”. Yet the CA bubblies from the folks named above are virtually indistinguishable from Champagne at twice the price and considerable more interesting than the bulk of the cheap Cremants on his list.

    OK. One more. I was recently in NYC and ate at the very highly regarded Marea Restaurant. Lovely place. Great food. Mostly wonderful sommelier. I asked her if she had or was studying for here MW or MS certificate. She responded, “No, that is mostly a California thing”.

    You see, the bad reputation of CA somms has spread all the way east.

  4. Bill Haydon says:

    OK, Charlie. Here’s the sparkling list for the Slanted Door.


    Henri Giraud “Homage” Brut Grand Cru Champagne NV, France 11 145
    L. Vitteaut Alberti ‘Agnes’ Cremant de Bourgogne NV, France 52
    Breton ‘La Dilettante’ Vouvray Brut NV, Loire, France 45
    Avinyo Spain Reserva Cava NV, Penedès, Spain 36
    Heitlinger Blanc de Noir 2009, Baden, Germany 12 59
    Dr. Nagler Sekt Brut NV, Rheingau, Germany 38
    Brochet ‘Millesime’ 1er Cru Extra Brut Champagne 2006, France 150
    Moncuit Blanc de Blanc Grand Cru Champagne NV, France 84
    Lassaigne Rosé de Montgueux NV, Champagne, France 155
    Larmandier-Bernier “Terre de Vertus” 1er Cru Brut Nature 2009, France 145
    DeSousa ‘Tradition’ Brut Champagne NV, France 90
    Nigl Sekt Rosé Brut 2010, Kremstal, Austria 62
    Gimonnet ‘Oenophile’ Extra Brut Champagne 2004, France 155
    Tissot “Indigene” Cremant de Jura NV, France 64
    Chateau Hureau “Rosanna” Cremant de Loire Rosé 2010, Saumur, France 46
    Marie Courtin “Efflorescence” Champagne 2008 145
    Ruelle-Pertois “Duo Emotion” 1er Cru Brut Champagne NV, France 86
    Caraccioli Brut 2007, Santa Lucia Highlands, California 82
    Raventos i Blanc ‘De Nit’ Rosé Cava 2011, Spain 50
    Bründlmayer Brut Rosé NV, Kamptal, Austria 89
    René Geoffroy ‘Cuvée Volupté’ Brut Champagne 2006, France 160
    Gaston Chiquet ‘Tradition’ Brut Champagne NV, France 95
    NPA Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc 2012, Mendocino CA (in a Kleen Kanteen) 35

    I see mostly Brut Champagnes from some pretty well respected growers, plus non-Champagnes from other world class producers like Nigl and Brundlmayer. There’s even two California producers. Seriously WTF do you expect? A tired list dominated by California sparkling wine houses, which nobody other than a California polemicist considers to be the equal of Champagne (too warm; no chalk!). And getting back to my underlying point, The Slanted Door has been in business for decades and seems to be busier than ever! Perhaps they are reacting to the market as much as trying to influence it.

    BTW, I’ve got some bad news for the Cali sparkling producers, just wait until the Best English fizz hits our shores. Now that can rival Champagne–cool climate; lotsa chalk!

  5. I can understand the frustration with somms who pack their wine list with obscure wines. There are definitely a few of those restaurants in Portland. But in defense of the somms who prefer to “educate the palate” as opposed to just “giving the customer what they want”, I must mention one thing.
    Without the support of local somms, it is possible Oregon riesling would be going extinct right now. The quality of these wines is unmistakable, but they are often very slow to sell. Recently, Portland somms have started to feature local riesling on their wine lists, and the effect it has made on small producers has been tangible.
    Whether we like it or not, somms have an important role as “gatekeepers”; and while they can sometimes use that role as a way to be exclusive (like Charlie mentioned), they can also use that role to be inclusive, and create greater opportunities for local producers.

  6. Ed Masciana says:

    First stop using the damn, stupid term. What a crock! You need a bunch of letters after your name to spend 30 seconds explaining a couple of wine choices to a diner? Gag me.

    The term is intimidating for most diners who can’t even pronounce it. So, let’s intimidate our customer before they order. Brilliant!!!

    The whole idea of “certifying” wine servers is also idiotic. They’re salespeople, for christ’s sake. They don’t need a bunch of expense courses to know the wines on their list. We have books for that.

    If they’re going to “educate” the diner, then they can clock out, join them for dinner and pay their own meal while spitting out all 13 grape varieties in Chateauneuf du Pape and all the DOs in Spain. Whoopee!

  7. Speaking of polemics, thank you Mr. Haydon for being so amazingly wrong. You remind me of the twenty-something somm at Spruce who did not have the slightest idea what the TA or RS or pH is of Schramsberg or Roederer or Iron Horse bubblies. I am afraid your high horse has thrown a shoe on this one.

  8. Kurt Burris says:

    The wine buyer at The Slanted Door wouldn’t even give me an appointment because wines from the Sierra Foothills are inferior. When you refuse to even taste wines because of your preconceived notions you may be a bit pretentious.

  9. Kurt–a master of understatement. At least Slanted Door has an inviting corkage policy and some very good wines on its list. I love the restaurant but now only go there when out-of-towners want to. And then I drink the Germans, which are admittedly well-chosen.

    Gabe–I like diversity on wine lists, and I also like folks who can find interesting local wines and promote them. But look at the two CA bubblies on the Slanted Door list. Sorry, but there existence is no more than a shadow. As for Oregon Riesling, when wine is good, as many of them are, and as your Pinot Gris is, then it deserves to have a place. And yes, somms no more need to produce lists that reflect what one can buy at Safeway (a broad but common selection) than they ought to offer lists that even well-versed bibbers cannot fathom. Balance, as in all things vinous, is the key.

  10. Bill Haydon
    Your bitterness always amuses me. One wonders if you will ever write anything compelling, interesting, or insightful.
    I’d like to call you a “second rate mind”, but given what I’ve read, I fear the value of “n” relative to how your mind rates, is considerably higher.
    But keep up the manufactured schadenfreude, and loud proclamations of how much more you know than anyone else. I, for one, always enjoy a good laugh.

  11. Dusty Gillson says:

    Mr. Haydon, how does is feel to be both angry and right all of the time?

    Can’t someone enjoy both New and Old World wines and enjoy when a restaurant provides a choice of each to give their customers the potential to have the best experience for them? It seems to be working pretty well for me so far.

  12. Kurt Burris says:

    I would like to add, that while I find the wine buying policy of the Slanted Door somewhat pretentious, I vastly prefer their list over one put together by your friendly neighborhood Southern Wine and Spirits rep. When the list looks like the corporate set for Safeway it is discouraging. Bur while I may not order a KJ Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay with dinner (Sorry Steve) I have no problems drinking an Edmeades Zin. Cheers.

  13. Nothing ever changes. I had this very same conversation 15 to 20 years ago when I was in the trade. Back then (long before he joined SW&S) Fred was saying the same thing. It was good advice then and good advice now.

    I was once one of the pretentious young somms pushing barrel fermented Torontes and small production Gruner V on unsuspecting customers. One of those who shamelessly insisted that guests force themselves to try and enjoy the pure acid trip of trocken spatleses. No chardonnay for you!

    Having left the trade in 2003 I’m now one of the unwashed masses who dread the arrival of the somm at the table. With age comes something or another.

  14. Bob Henry says:

    Steve,

    Here’s your link to the August 2014 issue of The Tasting Panel:

    http://digital.copcomm.com/title/3614

    What is the article title/page number to find the Fred Dame, M.S. quote?

    General observation: sometimes a sommelier/waitperson or wine store salesperson is a “taste maker”/”opinion leader.” Other times, an “order taker.”

    Knowing when separates the “tin ears” from the “active listeners.”

    ~~ Bob

  15. Bob Henry says:

    A shout-out to Bill Haydon:

    From your experience dining at and selling to restaurants, how are they preserving their wine-by-the-glass open bottles?

    1) striving to “turn” the open bottles as quickly as possible each night?
    2) using VacuVin manual or electric bottle pumps?
    3) using gas preservation systems?

    I can’t think of a better way to disappoint a dining patron than serving a glass of a “tired” open bottle of wine that has been indifferently stored by the restaurant.

    In this day and age of argon (or nitrogen or carbon dioxide) gas wine preservation systems, restaurants can offer tasting samples to diners like Steve without losing their financial investment in their physical inventory.

    (Aside: I consult on a wine store/wine bar/small plates cuisine establishment in Los Angeles that aspires in the days ahead to have every wine in the store also open and available for tasting in the wine bar. That’s a triple digit number of discrete wines. All preserved by argon.)

  16. Bob Henry says:

    Steve,

    You write:

    “Being a rather gentle and non-confrontational soul, I almost always refrain from negative feedback to a somm or a server, even when I’m unhappy with the way things turned out. This may avoid an unpleasant scene, but it doesn’t do a thing toward making my restaurant experience more pleasant.”

    I lobby my clients to embrace Net Promoter Scores to gauge the level of customer satisfaction.

    ~~ Bob

    A bibliography:

    Excerpt from BusinessWeek “Management” Column
    (January 30, 2006):

    “Would You Recommend Us?
    That simple query to customers is shaking up
    planning and executive pay.”

    Link: http://www.businessweek.com/print/magazine/content/06_05/b3969090.htm?chan=gl

    By Jena McGregor

    . . . a Harvard Business Review article . . . suggested companies measure customer loyalty by asking one simple question rather than relying on lengthy satisfaction surveys: “On a scale of zero to 10, how likely is it that you would recommend us to your friends or colleagues?”

    The article showed that “net promoter scores,” which measure the difference between the percentage of customers who give high responses (“promoters”) and those who give low ones (“detractors”), correlate closely with a company’s revenue growth. Promoters are defined as customers who give the company 9 or 10, while detractors hand out “0” through 6. Customers who log 7 or 8 are deemed “passively satisfied” and aren’t calculated in the final score. . . .

    — AND –

    From The Wall Street Journal “Marketplace” Section
    (July 10, 2006, Page B3):

    “Client-Satisfaction Tool Takes Root;
    GE Embraces Measurement Of Customers’ Experience;
    Winning Back ‘Detractors’”

    Link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB115248772900601871.html#printMode

    By Kathryn Kranhold
    “[Management] Theory & Practice” Column

  17. Well said Ed and Kurt I would like to introduce you to our Sierra Foothill brand. We are in the business of knocking down doors and opening up minds. http://www.baiocchiwines.com

    Would love to set up a tasting, please contact if interested.

    Once again thanks Steve for the discussion and I apologize for using the vehicle for self promotion…

  18. Bob Henry says:

    I have a comment waiting for “moderation.”

    BusinessWeek magazine has changed the URL since the cited article was first published:

    Excerpt from BusinessWeek “Management” Column
    (January 30, 2006):

    “Would You Recommend Us?
    That simple query to customers is shaking up
    planning and executive pay.”

    Link: http://www.businessweek.com/stories/2006-01-29/would-you-recommend-us

    By Jena McGregor

    . . . a Harvard Business Review article . . . suggested companies measure customer loyalty by asking one simple question rather than relying on lengthy satisfaction surveys: “On a scale of zero to 10, how likely is it that you would recommend us to your friends or colleagues?”

    The article showed that “net promoter scores,” which measure the difference between the percentage of customers who give high responses (“promoters”) and those who give low ones (“detractors”), correlate closely with a company’s revenue growth. Promoters are defined as customers who give the company 9 or 10, while detractors hand out “0” through 6. Customers who log 7 or 8 are deemed “passively satisfied” and aren’t calculated in the final score. . . .

  19. Sam McDaniel says:

    Maybe Fred Dame should look in the mirror.

  20. Bill Haydon says:

    OK, for my fanbase out there, please respond to my three main points.

    1) Do you really believe that California wine is being crowded off wine lists by the “weird” eccentric wines that nobody wants or is it the more mainstream European wines that are really dominating lists? Or (option 3) do you actually find things such as Muscadet, Albarino and Chablis to be esoteric outliers?

    2) If these restaurants (and as always, I’m speaking mainly about NYC, DC, Chicago and SF) are neither reflecting consumer demand nor providing proper service to their guests, why do they seem to be thriving and multiplying and, conversely, why are there not a rash of California-centric wine list restaurants opening up to fill the vacuum in these markets?

    3) How about that dwarf-themed winery? Has Napa finally crossed over into Texas A&M territory where there are no longer “Napa jokes” only “Napa stories?” Seriously, a dwarf-themed winery! A webpage that describes dwarves (and I quote here) as “jovial and light-hearted and possibly magical.” Do none of you find this offensive? Objectifying? Grotesque? What say you, in particular, Napa?

  21. Bob Henry says:

    Bill,

    I thought you were pulling our leg on the dwarf story . . . until I looked it up at the St. Helena Star:

    http://napavalleyregister.com/star/news/opinion/columnists/laura-rafaty/up-the-valley-lord-of-the-wrongs/article_dab5f71c-3b63-11e3-8b53-001a4bcf887a.html?print=true&cid=print

    I understand that the Travelocity gnome has submitted an employment application.

    ~~ Bob

  22. A true story. Yesterday I happened to ask a dentist about his dining experience at French Laundry. After a few seconds of pause, he said the somm “scorns” the bottles he brought with him by saying “we have the same grapes here but (ours)are better”. How interesting that memory at one of the most expensive and exclusive dining establishments on planet earth could be indented by the attitude of a somm!

    As simple as it goes, a somm is NOT unlike anyone else doing anything else. Besides being professionally competent, are you a nice human being with a good attitude? If an adventurous diner with an inquisitive mind wants to know about a bottle, pls share what you know and be honest with what you don’t. If he has a bit difficulty nailing a bottle, offer him a glass for sampling. If he does not give a shit to your wine list but chooses to pack his own, pls check the bottle first and see if it needs to be decanted. Wines are meant for heightening human’s sensory satisfactions, and a somm has the dream job to create and witness its happenings.

    As to Slanted Door, I applaud the creativity of Mr. Phan as I do to all the creative souls surrounding us. But can anyone tell us the ratio of its corporate-account clientele? When I had a generous company budget at disposal for entertaining clients, I’d be happy to impress my parties with a bottle of impressiveness-the region, the name, the vintage and the price tag.

    To all the somms of America, we wish you the best.

  23. Oh, I shouldn’t chime in here, having spent my life as an Ed Masciana-despised sommelier (how the hell are you, Ed?), but what the hell.

    There are jackasses in every business. Are there more jackasses percentage wise in the sommelier game? Maybe. But, believe it or not, they don’t last long. A sommelier’s job is very simple. But the most important part of the job is hospitality. Period. You’re hired for your wine knowledge, for your palate, for your ability to chose wines that complement the cuisine, to manage and run a wine cellar and stay within whatever budget you might be assigned, but Hospitality is your absolute first priority. Trust me, if a sommelier is rude to you, insults you, belittles your wine choice, all you have to do is talk to the general manager, and the sommelier will hear about it, and not in a good way. Leave the restaurant and don’t complain, save it for the Internet and its endless blogs, you’re part of the problem.

    I suspect that these days the reason so many restaurants may be turning to obscure wines, and imports, is as much related to prices as it is a sommelier’s ego. Certainly, there is ego involved, but, hell, who’s got a bigger ego than Fred Dame, why do we care what he thinks? But because restaurants, especially those that have to pay a sommelier, mark up their wines 300 or 400 percent, it’s easier to disguise that markup with wines that the clients are clueless about. They know the price of Caymus Cabernet, and they know your markup is insane, but most of them have no idea how much that Jura red costs retail, or that Assyrtiko, or that Spatlese. This makes your job, as a sommelier, a lot easier. People buy wines by price, they tend to buy within a certain price range every time, but they hate feeling gouged. If you don’t know the retail price of that $60 wine, you don’t care–if you know it’s $15 at Costco, you care.

    That’s a simplification, of course. And let’s not forget that a restaurant doesn’t need to justify the wines it chooses to sell. When you ask them to justify their list, Charlie, what answer would be acceptable to you? There isn’t one. This doesn’t mean they should give you a stupid, or an incorrect answer. There’s no call for that in hospitality. But I doubt any answer would satisfy. When it comes to wine, I’ve found, everyone is always right about their own tastes, and knows exactly what you need for your wine list. Sommeliers hear that sort of thing endlessly.

    Mr. Haydon, very, very few restaurants are busy because of their wine lists. Nor are they slow because of them. In my experience, and that’s a lifetime, people go to restaurants about half for the food, and the other half for the ambience and for how they are treated. Hip, trendy wine lists don’t build business. They might get someone in the door once. But if they have a poor experience, feel ripped off or insulted or ignored, they never return. Taking off all your CA wines and replacing them with other fine wines from less familiar regions won’t much change your business much either way. Except you might be able to squeeze a bit more profit from a bottle for the reasons I’ve touched on above.

    I’ve insulted sommeliers often on my blog. It’s a stupid occupation, one that gets undeserved admiration. And any job like that gets backlash endlessly. Many people who put “Sommelier” on their business cards are not sommeliers–they’re assistant managers who buy the wines. But “Sommelier” is cooler. It’s a word that is much abused these days. A sommelier has no more right to be rude to you, or condescending, than a waiter or a busboy. There are as many rude waiter stories as there are rude sommelier stories. But, trust me, there are a lot more rude customer stories. I could tell you a hundred.

    I have one final observation. I think that it usually takes a sommelier a few years to finally figure out that the wine list is not about him. You go in to the job eager to teach people about wine, share your knowledge, as Fred says “proselytize.” It’s a new sommelier trap, and most fall into it. Eventually, you come to understand that your job is about making the clients happy. That’s the point when you become a sommelier worthy of the title.

  24. Ron Washam, FTW!

  25. ” When you ask them to justify their list, Charlie, what answer would be acceptable to you? There isn’t one.”

    Ron, there may or may not be an acceptable answer, but the answer at Spruce, for example, was not acceptable because it was wrong. Factually wrong.

    As for Commonwealth and its answer, “I don’t care what the customers want”, well that is not a good answer either. Acceptable? I judge it not acceptable according to the standards of hospitality.

    Slanted Door was, particularly when Katzenbogenellenkatz was the wine buyer, biased to the point of excess when it came to CA wines. That is their right, but let’s not pretend that the days when they had ten Cremants on the list and not one CA bubbly were anything but tilted. And to suggest that an unheard of sparkling sauvignon blanc is a good representative of CA bubbles is yet another bit of utter nonsense.

    So, you might as well as, “who are you to judge someone else’s list?”. And I will respond, I am the same guy who also makes judgments about the Giants pitching staff and about movies and Picassos. Except for this. I taste for a living and I recognize bullshit when I smell it. And the arguments at Spruce, Commonwealth and Slanted Door are all bullshit–in my opinion, of course.

  26. Bob Henry says:

    Ron’s arrow hit the bull[shit]‘s eye:

    “. . . because restaurants, especially those that have to pay a sommelier, markup their wines 300 or 400 percent, it’s easier to disguise that markup with wines that the clients are clueless about.”

    Previously on this wine blogs, there have been comments about smartphone apps that access wine magazine ratings, or aggregate “crowd sourced” reviews.

    And we are all familiar with marketplace pricing via Wine-Searcher.

    If the tech savvy diner (smartphone in hand) peruses a wine list populated by obscure wines for which there are no reviews/ratings or retail pricing, then s/he will feel “clueless” about what is the wine’s drinking style and fair mark-up price.

    That diner may — or may not — embrace the wine list advice of the somm, depending on his tableside demeanor.

    (When in doubt, some diners might simply default to ordering a beer or cocktail — thereby reducing the revenue generated by that diner/that table. Clearly not in the best interest of the establishment.)

  27. Bill Haydon says:

    Ron, a couple of points to a comment that I otherwise largely agree with.

    First, I would say that the primary job of the sommelier it to be a net boost to the restaurant’s bottom line rather than a drag on it. Hospitality and good service is certainly part of that as insulted guests rarely return and often tell their friends and colleagues not to patronize an establishment, but it encompasses more than that. It means running a wine program that not only turns over inventory and is both profitable and cash flow positive but is also good marketing for the restaurant. While wine lists may not be the determining factor in a restaurant’s success, they do count for something, and that something is much greater than was the case ten or twenty years ago. Why aren’t these “somms gone wild” being fired and replaced with someone who will assemble Charlie Olken’s dream list if that is what the customers’ want? If that is what will contribute to the bottom line better? If that is what will bring more guest through the front door?

    Second, what about wine bars? Here the wine selection is the primary attraction to the establishment, and here it can be argued that the eccentricity and Euro-centeredness of lists is even greater than that of fine dining in general, yet they seem to be thriving and multiplying, again with no domestic-centered wine bars opening to fill any perceived market being ignored.

    Third, I agree with you that the MS program is silly. Repeat after me: IT’S ROTE MEMORIZATION. The pass rate is irrelevant. I could start a certificate program on baseball statistics. Let’s call it the MBS–Master of Baseball Statistics. The tests would all be multiple choice or simple recitation answers. There would be no true analytical component, no in-depth reasoned out essay questions and certainly no 10K word piece of original research (a’la the MW program). I, however, could rig the test with such esoteric questions that only five or ten percent would pass. That does not negate the fact that the test is still based on simply memorizing baseball statistics. A Doctoral program in physics at MIT or history at the University of Chicago has a much higher success rate than the MS program, yet only a fool would say that they are of even remotely similar academic rigor.

    Fourth, so what about this dwarf-themed winery? Your blog (well that and the Executive Committee of the Little People of America) is seemingly the natural place to address this ludicrous…..and demeaning, and offensive, and objectifying…..exercise in bad taste.

  28. Bill Haydon says:

    As for the argument that European centered wine lists are being driven by a need to disguise high markups. What about steakhouses? That’s the one corner of fine dining that still has prominent California sections left and is as profit motivated as any segment in the industry. Also, people might know the retail price of some tired old steakhouse brand like Silver Oak or Jordan or the grocery store sparkling wines Charlie triumphs, I doubt that they have any idea about it for lesser known Cali producers any more than for European producers.

    The only pricing argument in Europe’s favor is that you can actually get really good, artisan wine from numerous top-notch regions at prices at which California can’t produce anything but mass-produced and/or bulk project labels. The reality is that a restaurant can put a great bottle of small production, artisanal Chardonnay from Monferrato, Petit Chablis or Cote Chalonnaise onto a wine list for roughly what their wholesale cost of a bottle of similar Cali Chard will cost them.

  29. Susan,
    And your dentist friend had no comment on the corkage for his wine at the FrenchLaundry??
    Still…the somm’s gratuitous comment was way out of line.
    Tom

  30. Charlie,
    I wasn’t questioning your right to criticize a wine list, or your authority on wine. I criticize wine lists all the time. And I agree that a wrong answer or a rude answer is ridiculous. My point is that you are aiming your criticism in the wrong direction after a sommelier is rude or ignorant. Aim it at the management, tell them your issue with the sommelier. That’s your greatest weapon.

    Most sommeliers deal with chefs and owners who have serious agendas as well. They may run the wine program, but they have a lot of issues they have to juggle–budgets, chef’s prejudices, owner’s interference. It’s a mistake to think that a wine list is solely chosen by the sommelier. I worked for an owner who strictly forbade me to buy any wine from Gallo. I was fine with that, but I wasn’t about to disobey either. Lots of things like that in the sommelier racket.

    Bill,
    Your point about making money for the restaurant is absolutely right, and one I just assumed everyone would understand. That involves deals for by-the-glass wines, which is where the markups are far more ludicrous than on the list itself, and on turning inventory. I had a great boss, whose only words to me were, “I don’t care what you buy, you just have to sell it.” Well, that, and don’t buy Gallo.

    I’m not sure these “Somms Gone Wild” aren’t turning over, but I’m not in the biz any more, while you’re out there on the street, so I’ll defer to your opinion. It seems to me they play Musical Restaurants a lot, switching from one trendy place to another, which is a form of escaping the old heave-ho. And of chasing the crowd that follows their wine “wisdom.”

    Wine bars are a different thing altogether, I think, because they attract people looking to try something new, and people who want to show off their esoteric wine knowledge. They almost have to serve obscure wines. People who order a bottle of Jordan Cabernet with every meal in a steakhouse do not go to wine bars very often. Your comments are right, but wine bars are exceptions, I think, to what we’re talking about here.

    I don’t think anyone has insulted MS’s more than I have. I agree with what you write. It’s passing a very hard test through a lot of memorization, followed by performing a party trick (blind tasting). But, sadly, restaurants who hire sommeliers do so because they don’t have anyone around who can put together an interesting list, so they hire someone with letters after their name because they assume that person is more qualified to be an actual working sommelier. Much of the rudeness spoken of here is a result of hiring some chump who can do the party trick, but has never spent more than a month actually working in the hospitality business. And, as I wrote in the first note, hospitality is at least 50% of the sommelier occupation. Hospitality is not about condescension and arrogance. It can take a long time for that to sink in.

    As for wine prices, sure, they are much of the issue, Bill. But you don’t assemble a wine list based on your own wallet. If you have guests who love to drink expensive Napa Cabernets, and they’re out there, though fewer than before to be certain, you should probably have a few. A wine list should be eclectic, well-chosen, and interesting without feeling exclusionary. That’s my opinion. Guests usually choose only one bottle off of a list that may have several hundred. Most guests don’t consult the sommelier, they hunt for a wine they like, or sounds interesting, and is in their price range. If you insult or confuse them with a list that they cannot understand, they order cocktails, or they take the sommelier’s recommendation, but they’re unhappy. And they don’t return. Or if they do, they bring their own bottle of wine and pay the corkage.

    I love good wine lists. I’ve seen a lot. And I’ve met my share of sommeliers. Like 1WineDoody, I’ve never met a rude one. I have been given incorrect answers when I’ve asked questions, but I’m certain that there were times I did the same thing when I was working. It’s only wine.

    I just tried to make my guests have fun, feel like they were in good hands, let them decide how adventurous they wanted to be in their wine choices. Having an MS after your name is simple arrogance, a way of claiming some imaginary superiority. Why use it? Sure, pass the test, get a degree if you want, but you don’t have to put the MS after your name. It makes most of us want to puke.

  31. Ron: first off, love your blog. I often share it with friends.

    But I do have to rise to the defense of the MS program. It is a bit harder than you say. I sat the final exam four times in the early 2000s (three times in the US and once in London) and was unable to pass it. This was not from lack of study or practice. (I also dropped out of the much harder MW program after the first year because it was above my abilities.) From what I hear, the MS exam is now much more difficult than it was when I was unable to pass it.

    And yet, having left the wine field I went on to earn an academic masters degree and doctorate, passed a set of very difficult licensing exams (including a state board oral exam) and successfully completed a disturbingly difficult hospital-based postdoctoral fellowship.

    Yet, for all of those accomplishments, it remains the case that I was just unable to pass the master sommelier exam. Studying for the MS taught me how to study, and studying for the MW taught me how to write argumentative essays, so there were transferable skills here. But I still think it says something about the challenge of the MS that I was able to master a difficult doctoral program and post-doctoral training but couldn’t quite complete the MS.

    Whether the average restaurant diner needs a wine waiter who can pass such a difficult credential is another question, but at least acknowledge the difficulty and hard work involved in the process.

  32. Bill Haydon says:

    Dennis, I think your experience speaks directly to my point that success rate does not automatically equate with the difficulty of the material. I don’t know what your graduate fields were, but I would venture a guess that they were far more difficult, analytical and academically rigorous than memorizing an ocean of arcane wine trivia, yet I’m also certain that doctoral program had a higher success rate than the MS program. Rigging a low pass rate based on the vast amount of material available does not mean that memorizing those facts is inherently difficult.

    I do agree with you that the MW program is on another plane academically. It’s also why you see almost every MW having first attained a real university degree from a well respected, often elite, university. Contrast that with the MS program where I personally know more than a couple with no education beyond high school and a great many more with dime-a-dozen degrees from places like UNLV. Addressing Ron’s point, I think that academic insecurity and need to overcompensate is what lies beneath a lot of the pretentiousness of the MS crowd and comical need to constantly put the letters after their name. As for the MWs doing likewise, that’s more a vestige of the British upper class’ need to attach any and all letters after their names than any need to overcompensate for an inferior post-secondary education.

  33. This has sure been an interesting discussion. I don’t really see any input from the more average wine consumer however. I consider my wine education level fairly high among most people going to restaurants though nowhere near the level of most of you.

    When I look at a wine list I am not interested at all in California Cabs or Chardonnay. If I can’t find them at BevMo, KLWines or the local wine shop, Napa isn’t that far away. I want something different, show me what they are doing in the rest of the world or even other parts of the USA.

    There are so many interesting wines and wine regions, why is everyone so hung up on Napa? Take a chance, try something different.

  34. Sarah Steffanci says:

    Anyone who has ever attended an event hosted by Joe Spellman, MW can attest to the fact that many very well educated MWs have an amazing ability to “dumb down” their vast knowledge and speak to the average consumer. My experience with great restaurants in NYC has proven that the very young Somm generation tends to get over zealous while an older more experienced one has learned to read an average wine loving consumers needs very well.

  35. Bill Haydon says:

    Sarah, Joe is actually an MS not an MW. I will say that he is one of the exceptions proving the rule in that he happens to be the graduate of an excellent university. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always found him to be much more down to earth and approachable than many of his brethren–no need to put on airs and over-compensate.

  36. Bob Henry says:

    Bill:

    YOU WRITE:

    “Why aren’t these ‘somms gone wild’ being fired and replaced with someone who will assemble Charlie Olken’s dream list if that is what the customers want? If that is what will contribute to the bottom line better? If that is what will bring more guest through the front door?”

    Two considerations: a bamboozled restaurant owner who knows fine cuisine but not fine wine . . . so defaults to the predilections of the somm. And a “sunk cost” mentality: “I’m too cheap to dump the wine list and the somm and start over, so I will make the best of a bad situation.”

    Better solution: swallow your pride, swallow you loses (literally), and start over with a wine list that the public will embrace.

    Here are two insightful articles on avoiding the “sunk cost” fallacy, by psychology professor Barry Schwartz who penned the book titled “The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less.”

    http://articles.latimes.com/print/2006/sep/17/opinion/oe-schwartz17

    http://articles.latimes.com/print/2006/oct/20/opinion/oe-schwartz20

    YOU WRITE:

    “Second, what about wine bars? . . . they seem to be thriving and multiplying, again with no domestic-centered wine bars opening to fill any perceived market being ignored.”

    Yes, and before the 2007 financial markets collapse both Lehman Brothers and Bearn Stearns “seemed to be thriving.” Appearances to the outsider are deceiving. Don’t misdirect me with the sock puppet ad campaign. Show me the financial books.

    “The 80:20 Rule” of merchandising still applies. At that bar a projected 20% of the wine list generates 80% of the sales revenue. Is the remaining 80% of that obscure wine inventory turning over, earning a Return On Investment? (If not, the bar owner will literally be drinking his losses.)

    YOU WRITE:

    “The reality is that a restaurant can put a great bottle of small production, artisanal Chardonnay from Monferrato, Petit Chablis or Cote Chalonnaise onto a wine list for roughly what their wholesale cost of a bottle of similar Cali Chard will cost them.”

    I have no doubt. But can the dining establishment get a reorder of that small production wine? And a second reorder? And a third reorder, ad infinitum? (Bill, as you know, restaurant designs allocate very little storage space for wines on premises. Their inventory is typically a single case deep.) Dining establishments hate having to continually revise their wine lists because of stock-outs at the distributor/the broker. Invoking Ralph Waldo Emerson’s line about “a foolish consistency,” dining establishments are comfortable with the status quo. (Not that I am defending it.)

    On the subject of having a bad dining experience (say, because the somm was a jerk), a 2006 study co-conducted by the Wharton School of Business reports that “people told about a friend’s or relative’s bad shopping experience are up to five times as likely to avoid the store in question as the original unhappy customer.”

    Link: http://www.businessweek.com/stories/2006-04-16/talk-show

    Suffering in silence and leaving disgruntled doesn’t solve the problem. As Ron recommmends (and I concur): SPEAK UP!

    Restaurant owners, managers, the kitchen, and the wait staff need to hear the brickbats as well as the praise. (That’s why I champion Net Promoter Scores.)

    ( Aside: how difficult is it to pass the Master Sommelier exams? Citing this Los Angeles Times article circa 2007: “the past rate is 3%.” Link: http://www.latimes.com/features/la-fo-sommeliers12dec12,0,268196,print.story

    And once someone has attained that certification, how long do they practice in a restaurant before moving on to some other role? See W. Blake Gray’s wine blog: http://blog.wblakegray.com/2014/05/most-master-sommeliers-are-somms-in.html )

    ~~ Bob

  37. Bob Henry says:

    I have a comment awaiting “moderation.”

    Erratum:

    (Aside: how difficult is it to pass the Master Sommelier exams? Citing this Los Angeles Times article circa 2007: “the PASS rate is 3%.” Link: http://www.latimes.com/features/la-fo-sommeliers12dec12,0,268196,print.story)

  38. Bill Haydon says:

    Thanks for the link, Bob. Here’s the money shot.

    “There is plenty of private complaining about the perceived politics of these tests. To some, it appears that the pass rate of 3% is artificially low. Swelling the ranks of credentialed master sommeliers could lessen the value of being a member of the club.”

    I think that speaks volumes as to why the test is rigged to have such a low pass rate. Plus, you factor in the relatively subjective blind tasting and highly subjective service, and it’s very easy to get the pass rate down.

    Pass rate does not necessarily correlate to subject difficulty. Rote memorization lacking any analytical/original research component and even lacking the need to organize and present your knowledge in well reasoned and well written long essay form is not that difficult. It’s just that there’s an ocean of trivia to memorize and thus the final test can be manipulated to lower the pass rate.

  39. Bob Henry says:

    Bill,

    A preface: being in the Los Angeles wine biz, I know most of the somm candidates profiled in the Los Angeles Times article. To my knowledge, none has attained the M.S. credential.

    Twenty years ago, I was invited to sit in (as an “ex officio” member) on a somm group’s weekly study sessions. (None became M.S.-es.)

    My take-away: the restaurant maitre d’s and wine stewards could identify their own establishment’s wines blind. And the wine sales reps could identify their own “book” blind. But not the converse.

    My wine mentor Robert Lawrence Balzer of the Los Angeles Times used to observe that “We like that best to which we are most accustomed.”

    If restaurateurs seldom venture out to wine industry trade tastings, and distributors/brokers never attend their nominal/friendly competitors’ trade tastings, then they end up suffering from the myopia known as “cellar palate.”

    (Aside: See Jancis Robinson’s article on this subject: http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/the-dangers-of-cellar-palate.)

    The “universe” of wines they habitually sample is narrow and shallow.

    For this reason, I think wine retailers have a better shot at passing the blind taste test portion of the M.S. test than do restaurateurs or sales reps. Their accretion of knowledge from first-hand tasting experience better “informs” their deductive reasoning.

    Lettie Teague’s wine column today in The Wall Street Journal addresses “blind tasting” and the parlor trick of hitting a bull’s eye by fully identifying a “blind” glass of wine:

    http://online.wsj.com/articles/how-to-blind-taste-wine-like-a-sommelier-1408118884

    For an amusing short story titled “Taste” penned by Roald Dahl on a “blind” tasting challenge turned sinister, use these links to two videotaped one act plays.

    First version:

    http://vimeo.com/19033684

    Second version:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7CkwEHKk9bA

    Second version:

    For those who prefer to create their own mental images of the story’s character, use this link to a reading of the story by John Lithgow for New York public radio station WNYC:

    http://skaneatelesdesign.com/2008/04/13/roald-dahl/

    Finally, see Steve’s short story on this theme:

    http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/fiction/

    ~~ Bob

    Bill: still wish to hear your observations on wine-by-the-glass program preservation practices by restaurants you dine at or sell to.

  40. Bob Henry says:

    Postscript regarding my comment awaiting “moderation.”

    It’s been a while since I read Jancis’s 2007 article of “cellar palate”:

    http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/the-dangers-of-cellar-palate#sthash.Qj9zZKI2.dpuf

    “Buried” within the article is this nugget of historical information on the origin of so-called “orange” wines:

    “. . . respected wine producers in western Slovenia are now taking the idiosyncratic producer Gravner of Friuli across the Italian border as their model and deliberately treating their white wines to extended skin contact and long macerations, the result being wines that to most newcomers taste almost oxidised and distinctly weird.”

    Aside: I have floated the trial balloon of using carbonic maceration (associated with Beaujolais) to minimize the extraction of skin tannins from white wine grapes such as Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer.

    A few brave producers of Oregon Pinot Gris who I chatted up last year have embraced my challenge. As the Bard wrote, “More anon” as these experimental wines come to market — perhaps as early as this Autumn/Winter?

    With Steve’s indulgence, allow me to reproduce an e-mail exchange with one such pioneer, who needed no egging on by me:

    From: Dan Rinke
    Date: Mon, Sep 30, 2013 at 5:58 PM
    Subject: Re: Questions on carbonic maceration Pinot Gris
    To: Bob Henry

    Bob,

    I loved what the carbonic did to the Drueskall [Oregon Pinot Gris] in 2011. I did not do any carbonic in 2012 but I plan on doing it again this year. I also funny enough plan to do it on some Gewurztraminer for my own label Art + Science. Our write up on the web site sums it up for the most part. Do you have any specific questions? Tasting the wine may be the best way to understand that wine. Can I ship you a bottle to taste?

    Thanks,

    Dan

    2011 Pinot Gris – Drueskall – Johan Vineyards – Elegant Oregon Wine

    The Vintage:

    The 2011 growing season was cooler than the average year with plenty of rainfall in the spring and early summer. We had a record late bud-break (early May) but the vintage was ‘saved’ by a very mild, dry fall. Because of this shift in the growing season we also experienced a record late harvest (from October 26 to November 8). The result was very focused, juicy, high acid wines with mature phenolics and plenty of complexity due to the grapes extended ‘hang-time’.

    Production Notes:

    The 2011 Johan Vineyards Drueskall Pinot Gris is made from our estate vineyards. The “Drueskall”, which means grape skin in Norwegian, is an orange wine or a skin macerated Pinot Gris. Half of the fruit is destemmed and allowed to ferment on the skins in a concrete tank for 14 days and then pressed and finishes fermentation in barrel for 14 months. The other half went through carbonic maceration for 28 days and then pressed and aged in barrel for the remaining 13 months.

    Case Production: 48

    Brix at Harvest: 21

    pH 3.4

    TA 6.9

    Alc. 12%

    2011 Pinot Gris

    • Barrel fermented

    • Aged 6 months in neutral oak

    • Clean and focused, high acidity

    • Citrus and pineapple

    • Minerals

    • Aromatic and viscous

    • 240 cases made

    Please Call or Email for Availability:

    866-379-6029 / info@johanvineyards.com

  41. Bob Henry says:

    Bill,

    Call this a “coda” to a number of your comments on Steve’s wine blog.

    Well-made, small production, lower alcohol level Cali-wines exist.

    They simply may not make it to states where you and East Coast sommeliers reside and work, because these California garage-scale operation producers don’t have the resources or “connections” to get their products into distribution . . . and lagging “depletions” compel them to cut deals with opportunistic wine merchants, who will buy up their aging stock as discount priced offerings.

    An example from my e-mail in-box this morning, excerpted [with redactions] from a leading wine store:

    Every day is a winding road, or so says the song. One of the things we do is maintain an open door policy to suppliers. On some days we wonder why we do it as people traipse in and out with offerings that, on their best day, have no shot. When you do what we do, sometimes you have to work through a whole lot of crummy wine to find a few gems. To be honest, when we saw this wine, a four-year-old California white with a funny name, we were less than optimistic. But that’s why you shouldn’t judge until you have all the facts.

    The [name redacted] was a surprise. Viognier is a difficult grape to work with. Some of the super-ripe versions can get clumsy and are low in acidity and the leaner versions can lack mid-palate weight. It’s hard to get it just right and, if it doesn’t sport the classic, fresh honeysuckle element in the nose, what’s the point? This Viognier is a pretty example that seems to have a nice tension between the fruit and the acidity and is strikingly fresh given its age. In other words, it is perfectly tasty Viognier that was (and is) worth its modest, original $18 fare.

    There are multiple aspects to the wine business. You must make a good wine. That’s important. But you must also sell it. Ah, there’s the rub. Sales, particularly for smaller operations, can be a tricky proposition. [Founder] started as a lab tech at [respected California winery] and worked his way up to assistant winemaker under [another respected California winery], eventually taking the helm when [the second winery's founder] left in 1998. [This Viognier's winemaker] left [second winery] in 2000 to start his own label, and also become the winemaker at [a third winery].

    Clearly he’s got the wine part down. This [Viognier] is made with top notch fruit. It’s a blend [from two vineyards], fermented in 95% stainless steel tank and 5% in barrel, and shows white peach, apricot, pear, ginger & honey, and some ‘Roussanne-y-like’ notes. There’s a touch of minerality, too. It’s also a more euro 13.2% alcohol which is refreshing for a California white.

    It’s an excellent summer white and, at under $10, definitely merits serious consideration as your ‘house pour’. Not a lot of press save some nice notes and a ’90’ from Anthony Dias Blue, but that’s not the issue. The Viognier has plenty of character for the price range because, with that kind of fruit sourcing, clearly it was never intended to be at this kind of price. Only 689 cases were produced, but the ‘depletions’ were lagging. So cometh the deal. Good hunting.

    Just one more anonymous producer that Wine Spectator and investor Charles Banks alluded to that are underperforming financially because they can’t get distribution:

    Link: http://www.winespectator.com/webfeature/show/id/49221#.UoI_yAMMzG8

    ~~ Bob

  42. Bob Henry says:

    Bill,

    Call this a postscript to your observationS about the Master Sommelier exam:

    “. . . the MS program is silly. Repeat after me: IT’S ROTE MEMORIZATION. The pass rate is irrelevant.”

    — and —

    “Pass rate does not necessarily correlate to subject difficulty. Rote memorization lacking any analytical/original research component and even lacking the need to organize and present your knowledge in well reasoned and well written long essay form is not that difficult. It’s just that there’s an ocean of trivia to memorize and thus the final test can be manipulated to lower the pass rate.”

    Here’s the website of a Master Sommelier buddy of mine based in Los Angeles:

    http://www.winewisdomandwit.com/

    Note her observations about preparing for and passing the exams.

    Which she did in 1999:

    http://www.winespectator.com/webfeature/show/id/Three-Americans-Join-Ranks-of-Master-Sommeliers_20480)

    ~~ Bob

  43. Bill Haydon: if that “House of Dwarves” article turns out not to be satire, surely the ADA lawyers will be all over it when the first applicant is turned down for excessive height. I’ll look into it.

    Bill Dyer M.S. (Master of Science from U.C. Davis, which also involved a lot of memorization)

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