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The changing role of the somm

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Predictions of the demise of almost anything are usually exaggerated, as Mark Twain had occasion to note. He was very much alive when it was reported that he had died. Along the same lines, neither are sommeliers about to go the way of the dodo bird, as suggested in this piece, called “Are sommeliers becoming obsolete?”, that appeared in the Chicago edition of Crain’s Business. (You may not be able to read the entire piece if you’re not a subscriber or a particularly adroit Googler.)

The author, Maggie Hennessy, suggests that today’s somms are becoming obsolete due to the phenomenon of “sommelier 2.0”– somms moving more and more into the business, management and financial sides of their restaurants. This not only takes them steadily away from wine, it forces them to concentrate on beer and spirits—beverages they may have only a passing knowledge of and interest in, but that are increasingly important to a restaurant’s bottom line.

I know a sommelier or two—or fifty—and I’ve seen definite changes in how they do their jobs. It used to be that the sommelier was driven more by the discovery of interesting wines and the personal passion she held for them. Of course, he or she had to contribute to the restaurant’s profits, but in the larger scheme of things, the somm was seen as adding a certain esthetic to the operation. It fell to the kitchen to be the profit center; one had the feeling that restaurant ownership felt the sommelier brought added value, in the form of a clear commitment on management’s part to a fine-wine program, which was something diners seemed to appreciate and expect.

Esthetics, unfortunately, don’t pay rent or employee salaries and benefits. The squeeze has been building on fine-dining establishments for years, and was vastly accentuated by the Great Recession, which forced many of them out of business, and compelled others to take a more draconian approach to the bottom line. This is when somms really began feeling the heat: Management said, in effect, “Show us how your monetary results in a return on the investment we’ve made in you, or else we’ll show you the door.”

This is understandable, but it also created a crisis for sommeliers, who suddenly found themselves in an existential dilemma. Were they first and foremost wine lovers whose primary task was to discover gems the public might not know about? Were they simply curators of bloated wine lists stuffed with First Growths and cult Cabs they, themselves, neither could afford nor particularly liked? Or were they mere tools of the CFO, part of a sales staff whose sole responsibility was making money by pretending to be independent arbiters?

Obviously, all somms participate to some extent in all three of these areas. It’s a matter of emphasis. But the point of the Chicago Crain’s article, with which I agree, seems to be that the emphasis has been shifting over the last seven or eight years. We see this, not only anecdotally, but in terms of the sheer numbers of sommelier accreditation programs out there, which is greatly increasing the applicant pool. There are more somms available for employment than there are jobs, frankly, and so management is able to select—not simply the most educated somm, but the one who is thought best able to make money. That requires sound business and management skills, not simply an extraordinary knowledge of wine.

So where does the somm go from here? Is he an endangered species—“becoming obsolete,” as suggested by in the Chicago-Crain’s headline? No. The fact that we’re talking about “sommeliers,” and in fact that so many people are talking about somms, means that we—in the industry, and those advanced consumers—have some weird kind of fascination with the cult of the somm. The sommelier has seized hold of the American wine-drinking imagination in a way few would have thought possible.

But the sommelier’s role is changing, radically, and we do need to recognize it. Less driven by passion than profits, today’s somm needs to be understood by diners in a different way: Not so much a pure messenger of extraordinary wines, or an objective educator, but a representative of the restaurant’s management. That, I should think, would shift our perception of the sommelier in dramatic and significant ways.


Parker vs. “trendy reds” is a fake choice

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Here, you see, is the false dichotomy that infects so many of our wine conversations today: that there are “two different kinds” of wine and that we, as consumers and writers, “must pick one or the other,” as if we were in a vinous civil war where no one is permitted to be neutral and like both sides equally.

That is once again the premise of this think piece in San Francisco Magazine, whose very headline starkly presents the choice said to be confronting us: Should You Be Drinking Parker Bombs or Trendy Reds?” The article lists six red wines from California that all received “a perfect score from the Wine Advocate” and then contrasts them with six other red California wines “which probably aren’t going to net any 100-point scores…”.

Civil wars are dreadful things. Most people caught up in them, I suspect, would prefer to be left alone to live their lives in peace, but the fact of a civil war makes that practically impossible. We saw this in our own American Civil War (particularly in the border States) and we see it again, horribly, in places like Syria and Iraq, where common people—husbands and wives, children and old people, farmers and merchants and mechanics and teachers—get sucked against their wills into the crosshairs of the most disastrous arguments. Sometimes—often—it seems like these are arguments between maniacs, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” as Macbeth described Life, “a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.”

I submit that this false dichotomy is just such “sound and fury,” that it signifies absolutely nothing, except the unfortunate tendency of the media to fasten on anything that smells of controversy. Those proffering the argument that there are two kinds of wines, and that we must choose, frankly are almost exclusively from the “trendy reds” side of the spectrum. You never hear people who like Harlan or Verité or Saxum say that lighter red wines, such as Domaine de la Cote or Frog’s Leap Cabernet, are undrinkable. No sane or fair wine writer would take that position; if she were to do so, her credibility would be instantly undermined.

And yet the opposite is not the case; that is, writers and somms who like a lighter style of red wine (whatever that means) are able to charge, with impunity, that bigger red wines (whatever that means) are somehow marred or tainted or suspect.

How did we ever arrive at this impasse? More importantly, why do we suffer it to exist, in the exchanges that pass for our national wine conversation, which is supposed to be polite and reasoned, not polemical? This is why I have referred to the purveyors of the “lighter” side of the argument as the Taliban. (See here and here, for instance.)

An extremist, whether religious or cultural or stylistic, who insists that his interpretation of scripture is the only correct one is, by definition, a radical. And haven’t we seen that radicals of all stripes are the last things we need in this world?

So I return again to my old argument: When it comes to “lighter” or “more powerful” red wines, we don’t have to choose. We don’t have to feel as though we must choose, just because some authority (a sommelier, a newspaper columnist) tells us we must. People are so uncertain and insecure about wine; they look for whatever slender reed they can find, to grasp onto lest they be sucked into the quicksand of utter confusion. And this is why those purveyors of false choices do such a disservice to American wine drinkers. By creating the pretense that there is a true canon, as opposed to a false religion, they add to the confusion and, in the process, sow dissention where there ought to be nothing but respectful analysis and personal choice. It’s not and never has been “either-or.” It’s both. I wish that this phony argument, which now has enjoyed more than its expected fifteen minutes of strutting on the stage, would, like Macbeth’s walking shadow, go away and be heard no more.


Gay-friendly: Progress in the wine industry, but a long way to go

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Years ago—it has to be at least ten—I wrote an article for Wine Enthusiast about the emerging gay market for wine, and how important it was proving to be. I was seeing more wine advertisements aimed at gay people, and a handful of wineries was reaching out to them, albeit quietly.

At the time, I knew quite a number of gay people in the wine industry, among them winemakers and P.R. folks, but they were mainly in the closet. The wine industry is generally a pretty open place, but there are pockets of conservatism, and many gay people did not feel comfortable enough to come out.

My oh my, how that has changed. As American attitudes towards gay people (and we’ve now expanded that to the acronym GLBTQ) have softened, the presence of gays in wine, always there but largely invisible, has become clearer. It is due to a generalized spirit of welcoming that inspired the wine community, but it’s also recognition that the gay community has a lot of disposable income—and gay people like to drink wine (according to The Daily Beast, Gay people drink 16 percent more than straight people”).

I’ve never been one to lump Americans, though, into separate-but-equal identity groups. It seems to me that, since we’re all in this together, we ought to find ways of association that transcend things like gender, race, religion, age, ethnicity and sexual orientation—even political persuasion, which sometimes can be the most difficult difference to bridge. But that’s idealistic, I’m sure; the truth is that we do tend to feel binding ties with people who are like us, and I suppose that’s good, as long as it doesn’t make us so chauvinistic that we forget that we’re actually tied to everyone.

I don’t think, even when I was younger (when such an event would have been unthinkable), that I would have gone to Out in the Vineyard’s recent Gay Wine Weekend, held in Sonoma County. And now, when I’m old enough to be most of the attendees’ father, I’m not sure I would have been comfortable had I gone. But I sure am glad Out in the Vineyard exists, and I’m super-glad that Jackson Family Wines, exemplified by La Crema, supports it. This company is strongly pro-GLBTQ, a progressive stance I wish more California wineries shared.

Some wineries feel that being too closely identified with GLBTQ issues—which remains contentious among some unkind people in America—will hurt their bottom line. The wine industry, like most industries, constantly keeps tabs on how it’s perceived. Wineries don’t want to be thrust into the position of being on the backlash end of a homophobic boycott, as Wells Fargo recently was when the celebrity-preacher, Franklin Graham, exhibited narrow-minded and hateful behavior in criticizing Wells for having the temerity to put on a gay-friendly T.V. commercial. Graham, who seems not to understand the direction of history, or perhaps just doesn’t care, no doubt instilled fear among some winery proprietors who, personally, have no problem with the GLBTQ movement, and might even privately support it; but who fear the wrath of a popular religious leader whose admonitions are obeyed by millions.

One can hardly blame wineries for being afraid of such pressure; I cast not the first stone. But it does make me even prouder of gay-friendly wineries, not only Jackson Family but also J, Windsor Oaks, Sebastiani, DeLoach, Francis Ford Coppola, Ravenswood, Gary Farrell, Iron Horse, Lynmar, Korbel, E&J Gallo and many, many others. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that wineries (like most U.S. corporations) still tread exceedingly carefully using obviously gay people in their marketing and, especially, their advertising. Rev. Graham, and people like him, unfortunately have succeeded in getting their threatening message across: The stifling of free speech.


“The 100-point system is irrelevant”? Umm, sorry, no it’s not

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Haha, people have been saying the 100-point system is irrelevant for at least 100 years. Well, maybe the last 10 years. And now comes this blog from the Napa Valley Wine Academy that makes it official.

Well, who or what is the Napa Valley Wine Academy? They call themselves (on their website) “America’s premier wine school” and say they are an “approved program provider” for the WSET. So they must know what they’re talking about, right?

Here are their reasons why the 100-point system is “irrelevant”, according to the author, Jonathan Cristaldi:

  • “Parker’s influence continues to wain” [sic; he meant “wane,” but what’s a little spelling error now and then?)
  • no other critic’s influence is as important as Parker’s [true, dat]
  • people “don’t just buy when a wine garners big points” [well, nobody ever said points were the only criterion by which people make buying decisions]
  • and besides, WSET seekers “will have the power to raise a collective voice that is louder than any one critic.”

I need to break this last point down. Do you suppose that there ever will be a “collective voice” of sommeliers? I don’t. Put ten somms in a room and you’ll have more smackdowns than a mixed martial arts bout. These people seldom agree on anything, unless it’s that Burgundy is the best red wine and Riesling is the best white wine. So how, exactly, will this “collective voice” operate?

  • “the future of wine ratings is a future of recommendations, not points or scores…”

Proof? There is none. “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride,” the old nursery rhyme tells us. Merely wishing that individual critics will fade away, in favor of crowd-sourced opinions spread via social media, is the biggest wish-fantasy around. When Cristaldi tells us that “Friends and confidants will replace the lone wine critic,” he has absolutely no proof; no evidence supports it, except anecdotally; and even if the Baby Boomer critics, like Parker, are retiring or dying off, there is no reason to think that their places will not be taken by Millennials who just might be the future Parkers and Tanzers and Gallonis and Laubes and Wongs and, yes, Heimoffs. (Certainly, you know as well as I do that there are ambitious bloggers who ardently wish that were the case!)

So do I think the 100-point system will still be around in the future? Yes. It will, because schools still grade test scores on the 100-point system and Americans “get it” and know in their bones the difference between 87 points and 90 points. Will there be other graphic systems around (puffs, stars, and the like)? Sure. Will there be long-form wine writing that relies on the informative impact of words, rather than graphic signifiers? Yes. All of the above will make for a robust wine-reviewing scene.

Honestly, I continue to fail to understand why some people get so worked up over the 100-point system. It’s like a mania, the wine-reviewing equivalent of Obama birtherism. People: calm down. There are so many more important things to get upset about.

Where I will end this post is to re-quote Cristaldi’s quote from Jon Bonné, the former wine critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Jon said (according to Cristaldi), “The 100-point system is flawed.” Well, breaking news! Thank you, Jon, for pointing that out.

Of course the 100-point system is not perfect. What system is? But the 100-point system has educated more people, sold more wine and benefited more wineries than anything else ever invented. That’s pretty cool, and like the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.


Twitter’s shifting winds. Dead Social Media Walking?

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I never was much of a Twitter fan. Years ago, people whom I respected for their business savvy told me I had to start using it.

“But I don’t want to,” I responded. “It seems so pointless. ‘I had scrambled eggs this morning.’ Who cares?”

“You don’t understand,” my career-advising friends told me. “You have to, if for no other reason than to build your brand.”

Well, I hadn’t known I had a brand, but apparently I did. But why did I have to build it? And why through Twitter?

Yet I dutifully did as I was told. I signed up for Twitter and started tweeting, although I never liked it. Before long, I had thousands of followers.

That was success of a sort, I guess. But I never did figure out what to say on Twitter. Facebook was totally different. It felt freer, more open, more wide-horizoned. Twitter by contrast felt as confined as a procrustean bed.

And then of course there was this blog, which afforded me all the opportunity I really wanted to communicate instantly and intelligently with others through social media.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who didn’t love Twitter. There’s been a spate of media reporting in the last few days about the company’s problems. On June 11, CEO Dick Costolo, under fire recently for Twitter’s failing to hit revenue and profitability targets, resigned (or was pushed out; who knows?).

On June 12, Twitter’s stock price was at $35.90, its lowest in more than a year despite a surging stock market. On June 14—yesterday (and coincidentally my birthday)–one of Twitter’s biggest shareholders, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, told the Financial Times than Twitter’s next CEO, whoever he or she is, “has to have tech savviness, an investor-oriented process and a marketing mentality.”

Things have gotten so bad that a Harvard professor recently called Twitter “the BlackBerry of social media.” (Ouch!) BlackBerry’s stock has basically flat-lined for the last three years.

What’s the problem? It was described well on the Washington Post’s Wonk Blog: It’s virtually impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff. And on twitter there is a lot of chaff…up to 90% of a typical twitter feed is basically a waste of everyone’s time.”

I’ve been a big advocate of social media for wineries for years, although I never drank the Kool-Aid that some people apparently did, who thought that social media (and especially Twitter) was the greatest marketing tool ever. My attitude was, social media can’t hurt. If you have a few minutes during the day, you might as well do something on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or Pinterest. Who knows? You might actually drum up some sales. But I never thought social media should be anyone’s fulltime job, unless the winery is so well-heeled that they don’t care.

I think these latest travails of Twitter represent a tipping point of sorts. Social media flared up in the mid- and late 2000s like a wildfire sweeping across a drought-stricken plain. It seemed for a while that everyone in the world was going to abandon traditional forms of communication and go digital.

But perhaps the wildfire has now consumed much of the fuel that gave it breath. We in California understand the behavior of wildfires. They rage only for as long as the dry offshore winds drive them. But the wind always shifts; once an onshore pattern kicks in, the wind sends the fire back over land it has already consumed; and the fire, deprived of fuel, dies.

What wind is blowing social media now, and in which direction? We may have only to look at Twitter to discern the answer. And the lesson for wineries (there always is one)? Be smart in your choices of which social media to use, and how often, and at what cost. There is, and always has been, lots of chatter out there to convince you of its value. While this chatter has been enthusiastic, it has not always been accurate.


The New York Times discovers IPOB

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Nice, balanced treatment of the In Pursuit of Balance movement and those who think it’s silly by Bruce Schoenfeld in the New York Times magazine. The very fact that this phenomenon has hit the pages of the Gray Lady is indicative of how important IPOB has become in the weltanschauung of our wine conversation.

Let me get this out of the way immediately: I’ve thought since IPOB’s inception that they’re too ideological in declaring that some wines are “balanced” and some aren’t and that the dividing line is some ill-defined notion of alcoholic strength.

I don’t believe I’m one of the “invective-filled…partisans” who opposes IPOB, in Schoenfeld’s words; he catches the family quarrel well, but does tend to exaggerate the animosities a little bit—bringing in Robert Parker and his stinging critiques of IPOB (“jihadists,” “anti-pleasure,” “useless”) makes things sound worse than they are. For my part, I certainly wouldn’t use inflammatory language like that. But then, IPOB’s supporters haven’t gone after me the way they’ve gone after Parker. (I’m not important enough.)

If you believe IPOB you’d think that their members all make Pinot Noirs below 14%, but at the recent San Francisco tasting, there was Calera, whose wines can exceed 14.5%. For example, the 2007 Ryan I reviewed was 14.7%, and it was a very good wine I gave 93 points. But how do you explain Calera’s presence in IPOB? This is not a diss of Calera, whose wines I quite like, or of Josh Jensen, whom I respect, but it is a question posed to Raj Parr and Jasmine Hirsch. Why is Calera there? Are you saying that most other Pinot Noirs of that alcohol range are “unbalanced” but by some divine intervention, Calera isn’t? Enquiring minds want to know.

I give IPOB credit for sparking this conversation. Whether it’s a conversation that actually leads to any responsible conclusions, however, remains to be seen. Some years ago, the conversation in California was all about “food wines”—what they are, what they aren’t. Then, it was the application of oak that was at the heart of the chatter. This IPOB thing is a modern rendition of that discussion, which actually did have the positive result that it led to a renewed consideration of the proper application of oak to wine. There seems to be something self-regulating in the American wine industry—helped by social media and the chatty opinionizing that characterizes the wine industry—that perceives excesses almost as soon as they occur and tries to curtail them. This is a good thing.

But I suspect that IPOB will run its course in due time; other organizations will arise and fall, people’s attention will be diverted elsewhere, California’s climate will certainly play a role, and Raj, Jasmine and IPOB will go on to other, less contentious things. In the meantime, they’ve already succeeded in making wineries (which means winery owners) make, at the very least, contingency plans for what to do if, in fact, there is a serious consumer swing towards low-alcohol wines. I don’t think there is, yet, although if you read the wine press voraciously you might be forgiven for thinking it’s already happened. But this is how the media works nowadays: somebody stirs the pot, everybody starts talking about it, and the next thing you know, self-fulfilling prophecies pop up all over the place.

Have a great weekend!


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