Nice to see negociant Cam Hughes getting some love from Big Media, in this case Forbes, who says he “spends his time hunting opportunities that translate into great deals for wine buyers.”
I’ve been a Cameron Hughes Wine fan for years. I nominated Cam for Wine Enthusiast’s “Innovator of the Year” award this year (he didn’t get it, alas), because I believe the man has more or less reinvented the old art of the negociant in a way uniquely suitable for the 21st century.
Negociants used to be central to business practice in Bordeaux. Indeed, as Eddie Penning-Rowsell says in his masterpiece “The Wines of Bordeaux,” “the wines of Bordeaux owe so much to the merchants (negociants) and their enterprise, and they are so entwined in the history of Bordeaux’s growth and production as well as the sale of wine, that to give them…no more than the passing attention they have received so far would be inadequate as well as ungenerous.”
Such names as Barton, Jernon, Skinner, Nerac, Lawton and Guestier are part and parcel with the rise of Bordeaux in the 18th and 19th centuries. They bought the wine in cask from producers, blended it and sold it on the market, at a time when the chateaux had not the ability to do so. To be sure, the negociants were not always trusted. Thomas Jefferson warned a friend not to buy from negociants: “I can assure you that it is from them [i.e., the chateaux] alone that genuine wine is to be got, and not from any winemerchant.”
In the 20th century, of course, the Bordeaux negociants lost their primacy, as chateaux developed estate bottling and rising prices enabled them to market their wines directly. The concept of the negociant, by contrast, never really caught on in California (unless you can call something like Gallo a negociant, which I would not). This is why Cameron Hughes is so important.
Not that he was the first. Don Sebastiani first brought the modern concept to my attention in a major way when he established Don Sebastiani & Sons, which did win Wine Enthusiast’s 2005 Wine Star Award for Best American Winery of the Year, on my nomination. But Cameron Hughes has expanded beyond anything Don Sebastiani & Sons envisioned, becoming a worldwide presence. The Recession may have been disastrous to high-end wineries, but it’s proved a boon to Cameron, who profits from Bad Times. He’s able to pick up superpremium wine at discount prices, bottle it under his brand with his now-famous Lot numbers, and give the consumer some of the best values out there.
Not everything Cameron touches is gold. A 2009 Meritage, with a Napa County label, even at $10 was barely drinkable, while a 2010 Field Blend, $11, was rustic and brusque. Perhaps this is solely a function of their prices, for above $15 or so, a Cameron Hughes wine is as near a guarantee of quality as you’re likely to find in a California wine. I don’t have the time or patience to count all the Best Buys and Editor’s Choices I’ve given them over the years.
Will the recovering economy hurt negociants like Cameron Hughes? Probably. When I asked him where his Napa Cabernets came from (the agreements are strictly proprietary), he replied, “If you drive Highway 29 between Yountville and Rutherford, you’ll see.” These are precisely the wineries that were caught in the wringer by the Recession; buying on the cheap must have been as easy for Cameron as shooting fish in a barrel. But we have every reason to suspect the economy is recovering, and as it does, these wineries should be able to return to their normal $40-$60 a bottle price point. It will be interesting to see how Cameron Hughes deals with Good Times as well as Bad Times.
I was sad to learn yesterday that Paul Gregutt is ceasing production of his blog. Paul, as you may know, is the longtime wine critic for the Seattle Times as well as my colleague at Wine Enthusiast, where he reviews the wines of the Pacific Northwest. It’s safe to say that Paul is the dean of Northwest wine writers.
Paul cited the pressures of work for “de-coupling from blogging.” Like me, he had decided to post something every day, and after all these years, he found he just didn’t have the time to fit everything (including a life) into a 24-hour window. I, personally, don’t have that problem, no doubt because Paul’s life has more things in it than mine! But I can see where a blogger would eventually reach the point where he just says, “The heck with this.”
I’ve wondered for quite some time when the dozens of wine bloggers with whom I’m familiar would stop. The Hosemaster said he was, a while back, but then he came back. As for the others, they’re still blogging away. Nobody gets much out of it financially. Some of the bloggers with the biggest readerships, like Dr. Vino and Vinography, make a modest amount from advertising (or so I’m told), but apparently, it’s not very much. I will probably begin to take advertising one of these days. Making money at this was never my reason for doing it, but a little extra cash will come in handy in the Heimoff household, where Gus insists on only the best, most expensive treats of duck breast and bacon.
Which leads to the question, Why do the bloggers keep on keeping on? A few, like Eric Asimov at the New York Times, actually get paid for blogging. Some, like Jancis Robinson, are able to charge a subscription. But the others whom I mentioned above (and including the likes of 1WineDude and Catavino) don’t have any direct source of income from their blogs, except maybe a pittance from ads.
I can’t speak for them, but I can tell you why I blog. It’s because I love wine and the wine industry and culture so much, and am so embedded in them, that I want to write about them in ways that don’t fit the traditional journalistic format. Blogging isn’t really journalism, nor is it fiction. It’s more like the “New Journalism” pioneered by Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe, in which facts form the basis of the narrative, but there’s also room for improvisation and opinion. In a sense, the subject of wine lends itself admirably to this style, because so much of wine lies in the esthetic and imaginative sphere.
Speaking of the Hosemaster, he wrote the other day, “What amazes me is how wonderful and entertaining and fascinating wine itself is, whereas wine writing is, with few exceptions, dreary, pedantic, insipid and repetitive.” This statement is both true and exaggerated. It’s true if you think of all those articles that reliably come out before every Thanksgiving about what wine to drink. Pity the poor writer who has to crank out a Thanksgiving column year after year after bloody year, while trying to sound fresh and excited, as if it were all happening for the first time.
This isn’t to blame the writer. She’s only doing what she was told to do by an editor. There’s less excuse, however, for a blogger, who doesn’t have an editor, to engage in this tedious stuff, which I think is what Hosemaster was driving at. Wine blogging does get bogged down in the tendentious, the tiresome, the repetitious. One of the best trends I’ve seen in wine blogging lately, though, is the introduction of personality into the writing. Joe Roberts does a good job of that. The biggest difference between blogging and trad journalism is that the former allows for experimental, creative writing whereas the latter is locked into the dictates of a formal (and often formulistic) style that’s increasingly hidebound. The younger generation doesn’t read newspapers for precisely this reason. It’s too bad, really, because a great paper like the New York Times is essential, but it’s a reality that people are moving away from that format and toward more personal written expressions. That’s what blogging does best. Paul Gregutt had a really creative voice, as well as an informed mind that understood Northwest (and especially Washington) wine like no one else. Wine blogging is poorer for his absence. I hope that, like the Hosemaster, Paul will resurrect his blog one of these days.
On the other hand, we also know that George W. Bush didn’t drink, nor does Mitt Romney. So what does this say about Democrats and Republicans?
A lot, I think. Oh, I know that some Dems don’t inbibe and some Repubs do, but in general, it seems to me that Democrats like to drink for the same reasons the rest of us do: it relaxes them, makes them more uninhibited and contributes to an atmosphere of fun and festivity with friends. Republicans always seem more uptight to me, but that’s not the entire reason why they don’t drink. I think it’s because a neoprohibitionist streak runs through their party, and also the Christian fundamentalism that is so rampant in the GOP frowns on the consumption of alcohol.
Why this is so has long been a mystery to me. The people who wrote the Bible—Old and New Testaments—drank a lot of wine. Noah grew a grapevine when he emerged from the Ark. Jesus drank wine; in fact, he manufactured it from water, making him a winemaker. Wine was at the center of Semitic life, as it was of Greek and Roman culture. So why followers of the Bible would eschew wine is, quite frankly, weird.
The spiritual ancestors of our current anti-alcohol crowd were the Pilgrims, a tight-assed group of white guys if ever there was one. They didn’t permit dancing either, and I suspect if they were still around they wouldn’t go to the movies. They believed pleasure in this life was wicked and had to be rejected, so that they could experience pleasure in the next, Heavenly life. What current group of people on Earth believes the same? Fundamentalist Muslims, of course, who also don’t drink alcohol, and who make their women stay veiled.
Life for me has always been about pleasure. I’m no Sybarite; I don’t indulge in luxury for its own sake, and I dare say I have spiritual beliefs that are quite religious, in their own way. But I do believe the Creator gave us the capacity to delight in our senses, and that to deliberately shun that delight is, in a way, to turn against the Creator.
People who can’t relax with a glass of beer, wine or liquor among friends and laugh and get loose have a serious problem, and they shouldn’t be telling the rest of us what’s right and wrong. (I exempt, naturally, those who have addiction problems, of whom I have several I love in my own family.) It’s always been the anti-life crowd that’s tried to preach to the mass of humankind that’s fundamentally kind, generous and decent and just wants to chill after a long day of work. This anti-life crowd often ends up in positions of power—priest, legislator, judge—because something in them drives them to want to tell everybody else how to live. Sometimes, and in some eras, they take over entire countries, always leading them to disaster. One of the things I love about America and our culture is that people enjoy drinking. I love going into a bar with a TV showing sports and hearing folks laugh and cheer as their team scores. (As I did last Saturday in Santa Monica.) The booze is flowing freely, and everybody’s happy to be there no matter how lousy their day was, including me. If I was younger (and better-looking) I might even be a mixologist; they seem to be happy people with great jobs. If I were President of the United States, I’d make as one of my pet causes they promotion of wine drinking in America, on the basis that “No nation is drunken where wine is cheap.” Thomas Jefferson said that.
Some people give the rest of us a bad name. I’m talking about the “young men” who acted like idiots in full public view and who insulted the waiter when they held a “blind tasting” at a Chicago restaurant, Mastro’s Steak House, where they did everything that diners can possibly do wrong.
You have to feel some sympathy for that waiter, Cory Warfield, who reported the anecdote yesterday on his The Wine Guy blog.
Cory seems like a decent, funny, friendly guy who’s come up through the ranks (doorman, barback, DJ, “unofficial sommelier” at Ruth’s Chris Chicago, website owner at The Swirler), but he does have a temper, and uses his blog to vent when the venting is justified. As it certainly seems to have been in this case. Briefly, eight guys in their 40s who referred to themselves as “young men” (lol) had a wine tasting at Mastro’s, with Cory as their waiter. With no prior warning to the restaurant, they arrived with their bottles, demanded 72 glasses, and proceeded to act “very rude to me, pretentious (they were all trying to ‘one-up’ each other with fabricated stories, many of which included strip-clubs or celebrities.. whatever), and [were] fairly clueless in general…[telling] stories…about drinking Romanee Conti out of styrofoam cups in exclusive cellars making celebrities wait outside in the cold, and bragging about how they have the ‘ultimate hook-up’ [at] Alinea [restaurant].”
To add insult to injury, they were lousy tippers.
We all know, or have seen or been suffered to experience, people like the “young men.” If Cory is to be believed–and his blog rings absolutely true–they are the quintessential examples of wine snobbery, people so concerned with one-upsmanship, with gratifying their own egos by puffing themselves up, that they make everyone else around them uncomfortable.
Poor Cory did his best. Despite their unconscionable and unreasonable behavior, “I made it happen,” he relates, setting up the 72 glasses at a moment’s notice and getting the wine “poured evenly in front of each setting within twenty minutes…”. The “young men” no doubt didn’t have the slightest idea that Cory was secretly fuming, because he had the professional decorum not to show his true feelings. But he was able to relieve himself in his blog, which eerily comes just days after I blogged my own post, “When the critic rants: a defense.” This was Cory’s turn to vent, and he did it with grace and good humor.
Wine lovers, please monitor your public behavior. A few rules of the road:
Rule No. 1: If you’re going to ask for an unusual glass set-up at a restaurant, have the courtesy to call them earlier and make sure it’s okay and that they’re prepared for it.
Rule No. 2: When you’re dining out, please don’t brag about your Romanée-Conti exploits, your run-ins with celebrities, your connections at the best restaurants, in voices loud enough for anyone to hear you except the person you’re trying to impress. It’s rude and nasty, almost as objectionable as talking on a cell phone, and takes away from your neighbors’ pleasure.
Rule No. 3: If you bring your own wine, as the “young men” did, don’t use this as an excuse to leave a cheap tip.
Rule No. 4: Don’t treat your waiter like a slave. Be polite to him or her–offer tastes of the special wines you’re drinking–be considerate of that person’s feelings. That’s a human being you’re ordering about, not a robot. Overcome your own ego to treat others the way you would have others treat you.
The San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic, Michael Bauer, got some heat from his readers in the “comments” section of his blog yesterday after he [Michael] trash-talked a restaurant for selling him a bad bottle of wine at an inflated price.
The wine was a Portuguese rosé that Michael paid $30 for. “I suspect[ed] the bottle was corked,” Michael wrote, explaining that he didn’t return it because, as the most famous restaurant critic in Northern California, he didn’t want to draw attention to himself.
It wasn’t just the bad wine that irked him, it was the service. Waitstaff didn’t even put wine glasses on the table, only “small drinking glasses.” Moreover, “The staff didn’t seem to know anything about wine.” (It should be noted that the restaurant, Mau, is a Vietnamese restaurant, in the red-hot Valencia Corridor of the city’s Mission District, so maybe you have to cut them some slack.) As for the $30 tab, Michael had a friend do some calculating and determined that the restaurant paid about $6.90 a bottle, meaning they marked it up more than four times, which he called “gouging.”
Michael was clearly irked and in ranting mode, and some readers called him out on it. One wrote, “Here is a simple solution Bauer, if you don’t like the pricing at a restuarant DON”T eat there.” Another: “There’s a simple solution to this. Stop wining.” And: “There are people homeless in New Jersey and Staten Island and this guy is fuming over a bottle of Rose instead?” and: “This just goes to show that Bauer either has never worked the books at a restaurant or is bad at writing.” And: “O cry me a river. As a poster mentioned earlier, we don’t see anybody publishing articles about the mark up of popcorn in a movie theater.” And: “You suspected the wine was corked but didn’t send it back? I don’t see how being a reviewer affects the correct behavior in this case.” And: “If you are worried about saving money get a case of cheap Zin at Trader Joes and order a pizza to eat at home.”
Okay, so maybe Michael brought some of this snarkiness on himself. He was in a bad mood, he was venting, and this wasn’t his printed column in the newspaper, it was his blog, where immediacy and emotional transparency come easier and are more appropriate to the medium than in a print publication. But let me tell you, as a critic myself, sometimes you need to rant, and I’ll explain why.
It wasn’t just Michael’s experience at Mau that so distressed him. He’s had that same experience scores, if not hundreds of times, over many years, at many restaurants. Mau just tipped him over the edge. It happens. You see a dereliction of duty and, recalling too many such, you lose your temper and let ‘er rip. Now, you can argue that a critic should always be evenly-tempered and sweet in disposition, and you might be theoretically correct, but that’s not reality. Critics have very high standards of ethical behavior–Michael for restaurants, me for wineries. We bring that high moral code to the industries we report on, and even though we know we’re supposed to remain balanced, sometimes the violations just get to you. You think, These people are idiots. They don’t deserve to be in business! You want and need to get it out of your system–to cleanse yourself–to rant.
As for the snarky comments, I get a lot of those myself, as some of my readers know. They don’t bother me, as I’m sure Michael isn’t bothered, either. Both of us know, before we hit that “publish” button, that we’re going to get snark, and the stronger we feel about something, the more snark we get. It goes with the territory. But intensity, two-way communication, passion, opinionating, strong expression of feeling, even snark–they’re all part of the blogging experience. I’m glad. Readers have been used to being on the receiving end of a one-way communication for a long time, and now that they have the ability to respond, they take full advantage of it.
Eric Asimov’s retelling of the sommelier-customer experience in a restaurant (the somm “stands between us and humiliation” and inspires “doubt and dread…to make cowards of us all”) was written with the tongue-in-cheek style he’s known for. In lesser hands this language would be hyperbolic bloviation, a bad writer’s attempt at columnistic color. In Eric’s keen control, it exists on some meta level of shared irony.
On to what I take to be his main points: “Sommeliers can be your best friends” and “No guests want to appear cheap…”. I think of a sommelier (or wine director, or whoever is the most knowledgeable wine person on the floor) as someone of potential use in an expensive restaurant. In the affordable ethnic restaurants I eat at a lot–Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Indian, Mexican, soul food–you don’t need anyone to help you, nor would you get much help if you asked, nor is the “wine list” (such as it is) worth considering. Beer, from the country whose cuisine the restaurant prepares, is the ticket.
But at what I call the white tablecloth dining experience (although white tablecloths seem to have gone out of style in all but the snootiest French places, replaced by zinc, steel, natural stone, wood or even marble) it’s a different story. You generally want a nice wine. But, as we all know, the wine list can be daunting. Eric is entirely correct when he tells people to be upfront with the somm and tell him what kind of wine you like and how much you’re prepared to pay. That leads to Eric’s second main point: No one wants to appear cheap.
Isn’t it a funny aspect of human personality that this is so? It has to do with our peculiar attitudes toward money. We like money, but we’re secretive about how much we actually have, even, sometimes, with our friends and relatives. Does anyone know how much you actually make a year? Maybe your accountant and your spouse. Part of human nature is to want to be seen as happy to spend money, even if we’re not. It’s not that people don’t want to appear to be cheap, it’s more that they want to appear to be nonchalant about spending. It somehow seems big-natured. It’s churlish to be seen as overly concerned about spending; it makes the person seem materialistic and shallow–or so the argument goes. So even someone who’s pressed for money may find himself shelling out more than he’s comfortable with on a bottle of wine, especially if he thinks he has to impress the people he’s with.
Should a good sommelier–which is to say, not just one in charge of her list, but one who’s also sensitive to human needs and emotions–be able to pick up on such psychological nuances? I’d argue yes, but I’ve never been a somm, and anyway, the pressure to upsell the customer has always to be there. My favorite type of upscale restaurant is one with a small wine list, not the gargantuan Manhattan telephone book doorstoppers that win wine list awards. I enjoy browsing through those monsters, because I like seeing the names and regions and prices. But, far from those lists being helpful to me, they’re actually a turnoff–and they make me feel that even the best sommelier can’t be aware of every bottle and how it goes with every item on the menu. I actually breathe a sigh of relief when I go to a restaurant that has 20 or 30 good wines on the list: a bubbly, a rosé or two, a few lighter-boded reds, full-bodied reds, crisp, dry whites, light, floral, off-dry whites, and something white and oaky. Makes me think more highly of the proprietor–that he gave careful thought to choosing a handful of perfect wines for his food, instead of throwing everything on there including the kitchen sink.
I’ve always thought that we make too much of the wine-and-food pairing thing anyway. Too fussy, precious and pretentious. I remember an event, years ago, at Fetzer, when the Fetzer family still owned it. They had (and maybe still have) a fabulous organic garden outside of Hopland, up in Mendocino County, and their farmer was growing a bunch of different basils. We had a tasting: the object was to determine which of a range of Zinfandels went best with each kind of basil. It was fun, but I thought that if a home cook had to go through this whole megillah every time she entertained, she’d go nuts.
If you want to make a tomato sauce with basil and drink Zinfandel with it, does it really matter if the basil is purple or green, licoricey or sweet, lemony or cinnamonny? I’m a pretty zealous home cook and, like most of you, I enjoy putting together fairly complex dishes and then pairing them with wines I think will go with them. But at some point, this whole thing hits the tipping point, because after the first sip, hopefully you and your guests will forget about the dilettante aspects of pairing and get down to the serious business of enjoying the food, wine and conversation.
Anyhow, how hard can it be to come up with a satisfying food and wine pairing? Marilyn came to dinner yesterday and for an appetizer had I planned a mozzarella, tomato and basil salad, to take advantage of the last of the season’s Heirlooms. Then I realized I didn’t know what to drink with it, so I asked my Facebook friends. I got scores of suggestions: Champagne, Sardinian Vermentino, Chianti Classico, Barbera d’Asti, Gavi di Gavi, a Czech or German Pilsner, Chardonnay both oaked and unoaked, Bandol rosé, Gruner Veltliner, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, vodka. I bet any of those would be a pretty good pairing with that salad. After all, my Facebook friends, like my blog readers, are some of the most food savvy people in the world. They may not have “M.S.” after their names, but they know what tastes good with what.
So what did I have with the salad? Nothing! Before Marilyn came, I suddenly became ravenous for–you guessed it–mozzarella, raided the fridge and ate the entire container. So potstickers had to substitute for the salad, and with them we enjoyed Deschutes Inversion IPA which was really good.
The future of the sommelier, in my opinion, is to evolve into more of an all-service floor guide for the wine, beer, spirits and food, rather than a wine-oriented specialist. Sort of a maitre d’. Someone who can converse about everything concerning the dining experience: the restaurant’s architecture and interior design, history, philosophy, and the cultural matrix in which the Chef’s cuisine exists. It would be much more comfortable to interact with that person than with someone who made you uncomfortable.