You’d think they wouldn’t give a hoot. Wouldn’t they rather hear about the toast level of barrels, the composition of the soil, the angle of the slope with respect to the rising and setting of the sun, the type of crusher-destemmer, and the all-important details of pH and acidity?
Well, actually, no. On these trips I occasionally go on, buyers routinely let me know how happy they are to leave all that geek speak behind and get down to what they really like: gossip!
Oh, I don’t mean who’s doing what to whom, behind whose back. That can be delicious, but it’s best postponed for the afterparty, when everybody’s half tanked. The lunches, dinners and inbetween tastings I do feature wine, and wine is certainly the rationale for our gathering, and I can usually talk with some degree of specificity about them. But often enough, what people really want, when you get right down to it, is good conversation about this industry we all love and are lucky enough to work in: Wine!
Look, these wine buyers spend half their days being pitched by salepeople. Most of them are pretty knowledgeable already about the wines, wineries, regions and so on. There may be some divots in their understanding, and if there are, they’ll let me know; if they request specific information, hopefully I can provide it, and if I can’t, I always have my trusty computer with me, and can look up the precise percentage of Semillon in that blend.
But—and this is simply my impression—restaurateurs and wine merchants who care enough to take three hours of their day to come to an event Steve Heimoff is hosting want more than technical stuff. I can’t tell you how often they tell me me how boring they find techno-sessions to be—a recital of geeky trivia. Yes, they want and need a certain amount of it. It’s necessary for them to have some technical foundation they can pass on to their own buyers—customers—as part of the story. But, like I said, most of them already have a ready store of knowledge, and if they don’t, they know they can find it online. So why would they happily spend the better part of a business day with yours truly? Because they want good conversation.
They want good back-and-forth, and not just about Jackson Family Wines. They want to talk about their jobs: the challenges, the complexities, the ironies. They want insider information about what really goes on behind the scenes at wine magazines: not just the P.R. but the facts. They want my opinions—and I always stress, in no uncertain terms, that these are my OPINIONS, although in most cases the circumstantial evidence for my opinions is substantial—about stuff like: is there a relationship between paid advertising and scores? Are wine critics paid off by producers? What will happen when Parker dies (which God forbid won’t be for a very long time), et cetera. And I get it: When I started blogging, in 2008, I didn’t even know what the word “transparency” meant. I didn’t know how untransparent we critics were: lordly autocrats, dwelling in ivory towers, who allowed our reviews to flutter down to the masses in the streets, who had to accept them without question. Thank goodness the early commenters on my blog taught me the lessons of transparency: tell us everything about how you review wines, every single last detail, or run the risk of one of us finding out that you’re a liar and busting you on social media.
Because, after all, restaurateurs and merchants—many if not most of them, anyway—still have to figure in the ratings and reviews of wine critics in order to sell wine. A few, here and there, don’t, and I applaud them. But many others do need to cite a score on a shelf talker, bottlenecker or newsletter, because that’s what customers want, and the customer is always right. So they—restaurateurs and merchants—have a natural curiosity about how the process works, and moreover they have a right to know.
I never give away information so confidential it could compromise me. I tell the truth. I explain how the commenters on my blog, and other wine bloggers, taught me about transparency, and how grateful I am that they did, and how happy it makes me to tell them everything I can, without violating confidentiality agreements that could land me in a lawsuit. What I think I bring to the table, when I’m on the road helping Jackson Family Wines’ sales force to sell wine, is something unique: anyone can talk about technical data. Anyone can give his or her impressions about the wine. What few others can do is to talk about wine from the perspective of a former famous wine critic who’s been there, on the playing fields, at the center of the action, and who moreover—and by happy serendipity—started a little wine blog eight years ago that dragged me into the wonderful weirdness of social media. I don’t always tow the J.F.W. P.R. line. I told my employers when they hired me that they knew who I was, that I wasn’t going to turn into somebody else—at my age—and that, if they could live with that, I would be happy to represent J.F.W., a winery company I had admired and respected for twenty years, founded by a man whom I loved and revered. They said, “Fine. That’s what we want. Go out there, be you,” and that is what I do. So, bottom line: There is no job I can imagine that is more satisfying than to be paid to visit with these wonderful restaurateurs and merchants and relax, over great food and great wine, tell them what I can about the wines, describe my admiration for Jess, and discover areas of conversational interest that engage us. My biggest challenge on the road is to stick to a schedule: We tend to talk so much and so interestingly that, before you know it, we’re thirty minutes behind schedule for our next visit, and in L.A. or S.F. traffic, that’s a haul! Professionally, that’s a problem. Personally—for me and the restaurateurs and merchants I’m with—it’s a delight.
Anyway: I’m back in Oakland tomorrow (today, as you read this) after two weeks in Texas and Southern California. I will be reunited with Gus, the mere thought of which beings me comfort and joy. Have a fabulous weekend.
From the Wine Bloggers Conference agenda:
Live Wine Blogging (White & Rose): This is the pre-eminent event at the Wine Bloggers Conference. Winemakers will each have five minutes to pour their wine, present their story, and answer questions from a table of bloggers. At the end of five minutes, winemakers will rotate to a new table. Bloggers will analyze and describe their impressions live via social media or their blogs.
Winemaker Steve Heimoff, of Chateau Heimoff, poured his Chateauneuf-du-Pup “Cuvée Gus” for six bloggers. This is a transcript of the session.
Elsie Tutwell, “Wine for Walloons”
Davison D. Dudwinkle, “Dudes Definitely Drink”
Nathan L. “Putzy” Poodleheimer, “This Putz Drinks Pink!”
P. Chumitz, “Waiter, there’s a fly in my wine!”
Desirée D’Anglebert, “The Sexy Grrlzz Guide to Wine”
Rainbow Roy, “How Gay Is That? Hot Wines for Hot Men”
Steve: Hi everyone, how are—
Elsie: We only have 5 minutes.
Rainbow: I love your tattoos!
Putzy: Is this a rosé? Cuz that’s all I drink.
Steve: Actually, it’s—
Davison: Oh, darn, my screen froze!
Desirée: Really? Let me see. Sometimes if I hold it here—
Chumitz: Where did you say you’re from?
Steve: Actually, I didn’t say, but I’m from—
Desirée: There! It just needed a little love. Try it now.
Davison: Why is it damp?
Rainbow: Is that an orchid?
Steve: Yes, and that’s a poppy next to it. Now, about the wine—
Elsie: Oh, I like it. I’m going to tweet about it. How do you spell your name?
Steve: S – T – E – V –
Putzy: Funny, it doesn’t look pink….
Chumitz: Poodleheimer, you’re a moron. It’s Petite Sirah.
Steve: Actually, no, it’s—
Putzy: You don’t have to be so rude, Chumitz.
Rainbow: I have a tattoo, but I’d have to go au naturel to show it to you, and I’m not sure that the Wine Bloggers Conference is the appropriate place…
Davison: What forest is the oak from? What’s the char level? How old were the trees? Was the toastiére’s name Maurice?
Elsie: What’s a toasty air?
Desirée: I think it was fermented in concrete eggs. Am I right? Because I can always tell from that wet concrete smell.
Davison: That’s brett. Or is it TCA? I get them mixed up.
Chumitz: You’re nuts, Desirée. It was obviously aged in new Tronçais.
Desirée: I have an idea. Let’s ask the winemaker!
Steve: Well, I—
Davison: Because when I was in France the guy’s name was Maurice, only he was Swiss.
Rainbow: I knew a Maurice. But he was from Brooklyn.
Putzy: I really liked that last wine. You remember? You liked it too, Desirée.
Desirée: No I didn’t. Elsie did.
Elsie: I didn’t either. You mean the sparkling wine?
Putzy: I hated it. I liked the dessert wine.
Steve: Well, this is a—
Davison: You did like it, Desirée. Remember? You asked him what the pH was.
Desirée: Oh, right. I’m getting a little tipsy! Ooopsy poopsy!
Rainbow: It’s a portrait of my mom. The only reason I put it on my buttocks was because—
Chumitz: Rainbow Roy, we really don’t need to hear about your buttocks.
Rainbow: Well, I’m just saying.
Davison: What U.C. Davis climate region is it? Are the soils volcanic? How do you define “mineral”? How old are the vines? Is it a Geneva Double Curtain? Did you pick before the rains came?
Elsie: I’m terribly sorry, Mr.—what did you say your name is? Smellneff? Anyhow, your time is up. Next winemaker!
Tomorrow: Heimoff does Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, Reddit, Periscope and Grindr.
I’ve always wanted to come to Austin. I’d heard so much about how it’s the “San Francisco of Texas.” My friend Terry, from the tattoo shop, spent a year there, and loved it. My local drive-around buddies were from Republic distributors, Scott
and Chris (whose picture I forgot to take). Scott actually drove me all the way from San Antonio, and between him and Chris, I feel I got to know this city of nearly 900,000—Texas’s capital—pretty well. I took this picture of the downtown skyline from his car.
Despite its size, Austin has a small-town feeling, especially the downtown area and Sixth Street,
which was so like Oakland, and also reminded me of the Pearl District in Portland, Oregon: young, energetic, lots of hip clubs, bars, wine stores and tattoo shops, and cool, creative little restaurants. The temperature was very hot, above 100 degrees, but, being inland, it didn’t have the humidity of Houston, so I found it very comfortable. (Of course, we were going from one air-conditioned place to another.)
We had lunch at Mongers,
which may not look like much from the outside, but is one of the better seafood restaurants; their ahi tuna poke was fantastic.
My friends brought me to some wine shops: Beverage World, a fine little venue with a really friendly, loyal clientele, where I hosted a tasting with the chef and buyer, Eric Pelegrin,
a Frenchman who is a man after my own heart. Wow, did we have fun with the customers, nearly all of whom brought their dogs (and made me really miss Gus!). We also tasted with John Roenigk, owner of the Austin Wine Merchant,
the kind of wine store I just love to poke around, row after crowded row of interesting bottles (and I joked that I wouldn’t mind getting locked in there some night!). We also visited The Grove Wine Bar & Kitchen, where I met the proprietor, Reed Clemons,
and what a success story that is: Reed now has four branches of this fun, lively restaurant, with its modern decor and highly curated wine list.
I stayed at the Omni. This was my last dinner before heading home:
crab cakes and mussels, washed down with a vodka gimlet. Fairly standard hotel fare, but I’m not complaining. The vodka was local, from Tito’s, which I’d earlier had in San Antonio, and it was quite good. I always try to drink local on these trips.
At the Austin Airport, on my way back to San Francisco, I saw this poster in one of the shops. “Keep Austin Weird” is, I guess, sort of the town’s motto.
I felt like I’d done my part, however briefly, to do exactly that!
And now, it’s on the road again this week, to Southern California. I’ll do my best to report. Take care and be well.
Gotta say that I’m really digging San Antonio. After big Houston, San Antone has more of a small town, neighborhoody and, dare I say it, soulful thing going on. Great downtown, lots of old brick buildings (and The Alamo!),
and neighborhoods that are being rehabbed with cool new restaurants, clubs, bars. It reminded me of old-town Baltimore, Portland’s Pearl District, and my own, beloved Oakland, except a lot hotter: the temperature has been about 100 since I’ve been in Texas, but Houston was so humid, whereas San Antonio—inland—is more of a dry heat, which I can dig.
One of my hosts showed me the River Walk along the San Antonio River.
Wow. This photo hardly does it justice. My first impression was it’s like Costa Rica. Love it, love it, what a beautiful place to have in a big city.
We also went to a restaurant, Paesanos, and as soon as I walked in I “got it.” I told my friend, “I bet this place is a tremendous success.” It just had that formula: family friendly, but upscale. The ability to combine those two elements has got to be one of the hardest balancing acts in all of restaurantdom. The somm there, Roberto “Robbie” Pacheco, was so proud of this device he has that stores wine under argon gas.
I don’t know if you can read all the labels, but he has some very expensive bottles in there, including Latour 2000; a six-ounce pour will set you back $300, a bit beyond my budget! But I was glad to see Verité in there.
Had lunch with a cool guy, Fabien Jacob, the somm at a steakhouse, Bohanan’s, which I understand is very popular (we actually ate at a different restaurant). From Fabien I got a hint of the wine habits of folks down here. Turns out they love California Cabernet Sauvignon, which I did not know; even in this heat, they’ll drink it with everything. Mazel tov San Antonio! I also met a very young, cool dude, Scott Ota, who’s launching High Street Wine Co. in September. His ambitions are very high: to have an eclectic wine list, personally curated by him. He’s still putting together all the pieces, but his passion and understanding of wine blew me away, especially for someone of his tender years.
Finally, a place I hope to return to for a longer time. Smoke, the restaurant, occupies three floors of an old brick building, beside the railroad tracks, a retro sort of place that was actually a stop on the Underground Railroad! They have bars and big, happy, loud dining areas where I could see myself any night of the week. It’s a barbecue joint. As soon as you walk in, you get the smoky, charry scent that makes your tastebuds whistle.
San Antonio reminded me in so many ways of Oakland: a town that was, possibly, a little run-down at some point, but with tremendous potential, in terms of the charming old buildings, history, and the presence of a budding population of young people who are looking for authentic local places to eat and drink. I drank the local vodka and the local wine, and thoroughly enjoyed this, my first visit to San Antonio, which I hope will not be my last. I stayed at a Hyatt, which was entirely suitable, and ate at the bar: homemade spinach, artichoke and chicken flatbread, with a Central Texas Fall Creek 2015 Sauvignon Blanc, which had plenty of Sauvignon character. At the hotel bar, as the sun sets here in San Antonio, I am a happy camper.
You know what? I don’t need Michelin. Sometimes good, honest fare completes me. Tomorrow, it’s onto to my final stop, Austin, which my friends tell me is the San Francisco or Berkeley of Texas. We’ll see…
I’m told by my friends and hosts here in Houston, Texas’s biggest city and a financial and oil hub, that Michelin won’t come here to review restaurants. If that’s true, and they swear by it, it makes no sense. Houston is a great city, a port city that prides itself on its international culinary influences. I’ve now enjoyed the food in four places here, and I gotta say, Kudos! Good food. Interesting food, including a popup presided over by a James Beard award-winning chef. Why would Michelin ignore Houston? Don’t know. Just asking.
Anyhow – forgive me for short-shrifting my readers the last few days in terms of content and word length. Long days, and triple-digit temperatures with high humidity conspire against me being creative when I finally get back to my hotel room, usually after copious amounts of alcohol. (I will say they know how to make a proper vodka gimlet in this town!) On tomorrow (Wednesday) to San Antonio, then on Thursday, Austin. I like to remind people here that I consider myself half-Texan and Oklahoman. My mom’s parents moved to Oklahoma–which was then Indian territory–in 1907. The family quickly spread to Texas. All my cousins on that side of the family are from down here; I used to visit in the summers, and once, at the age of seven, I spent a good part of the summer digging a ten-foot-deep hole in my uncle’s Oklahoma City home looking for oil (which I never did find).
I’ve met some great people on this trip, including Sean Beck, the sommelier at a group of restaurants including Caracol, where we had some fantastic Gulf oysters, but more to the point, Sean is of like mind with me when it comes to today’s rather bizarre tastes in sommelier-driven wine. I won’t attempt to quote him, but it’s refreshing to know that not every young somm thinks that wine has to be low alcohol and have a lot of funky dirtiness in order to be interesting. I exaggerate, of course, but you get the point…and as I told Sean, I think this temporary insanity in favor of so-called “natural” wines (a meaningless term) is coming to a merciful end, as the demise of In Pursuit of Balance symbolizes (and Sean, like me, scratches his head when it comes to defining “natural”).
Well, that’s it for tonight. Have a great Wednesday!
On the road again, this time in Houston, a town I have family roots in but can’t claim to know at all. They have a beautiful skyline but apparently the collapse in oil prices has hit it hard. I’m staying at The Houstonian, which I’m told used to be George H.W. Bush’s estate, and I must say, the grounds are pretty fancy and my room is great. The temperature on arrival was 103 with 70% humidity; I’m glad I don’t have to do manual labor out there! I was tired after a long day; those seats on United seem to get more cramped with every flight. Fortunately I was sitting next to a cool dude, a young Louisianan who had flown to San Francisco for the Marathon, so we were able to chat about running, which I don’t really do much anymore but in my heyday, wow, I was pretty good, my best performance ever having been coming in fourth in Bridge to Bridge in my age group (40s), which if you know that race is nothing to sneeze at.
My host here is young Zach White, a regional sales manager for Jackson Family Wines. I love meeting these young road warriors. This life of selling wine isn’t for everyone, but the ones who have chosen it are really into it. I’m a big fan of Alexander the Great, the way he inspired his troops to march with him halfway around the world, through deserts and inhospitable mountains, always meeting hostile tribes whom they had to fight. Why did those men follow Alexander to the ends of the earth? Because he inspired them, gave them something to believe in—not just gold and treasure, but the spirit of achievement. It’s the same with these sales guys. The work is hard, brutal; endless driving, schmoozing. Zach was telling me some of the stories about how he won certain accounts through sheer persistence. He did things when many others would have given up. I can relate to that: I got my first wine writing job, at Wine Spectator, the same way. I refused to accept “no” for an answer. I banged at their door every day until, finally, they said yes. That’s why I’m a big believer in the American Dream. You can pretty much accomplish anything you want—but it won’t be handed to you on a silver platter. You have to work your guts out to get it.
Anyhow, from Houston it’s on to Fort Worth and Austin. Like I said, I have deep roots in Texas, on my mother’s side, so it’s a delight to be down here. I was telling Zach how, when my Texas and Oklahoma uncles used to visit us in New York, their drink of choice was “bourbon and branchwater.” Zach is big on bourbon but had never heard the term “branchwater.” I didn’t know what it meant either, so we Googled it. “Branchwater” is simply “still” water as opposed to seltzer. I don’t know why my uncles called it “branchwater” and not just “water,” but I love that, it’s so poetic. I’m sure there’s a story somewhere but I like to think it has to do with the South’s love of romance and evocative language. Doesn’t “branchwater” sound ever so much more romantic than “water”?
So it’s off to bed in my hotel room, with a half bottle of Veuve Cliquot and some charcuterie and crab cakes from the restaurant. All is good. I hope your night and day are pleasant.