Off to Sacramento early this morning for a trade tasting the organizers are billing as “The Critic Vs. the Somm.” It’s kind of a M.M.A. smackdown beween Master Sommelier Sur Lucero and myself—or, at least, that’s what it’s purported to be.
They expect a big turnout, I’m told. We’ll taste through a half-dozen or so wines. Sur, like myself an employee of Jackson Family Wines, will do his M.S. thing and explain his analytical process. I’ll do mine.
The M.S. grid (I think this is it – I got it off the Web)
certainly looks helpful; it encapsulates just about every quality you could find in a wine, and thus helps you identify what the wine is in a blind tasting in which you’re using deductive logic to identify what’s in the glass. Deductive logic, you’ll remember from philosophy class, is where you take a top-down approach to reasoning: starting with the premises, you reach a conclusion that must be true, provided that the premises are true. Thus, if the wine satisfies all the parameters of a fresh young German Riesling, then it must be German Riesling—or so the Master Sommelier grid would have it.
That’s all well and good, if your objective is to pass the M.S. examination. But it’s not the way I taste wine. I always say that the way you taste depends on your job. Master Somms learn to taste the way they do because they want to be Master Somms; their job, as it were, during the period they’re studying, is to taste like an M.S., hence the grid. They learn to taste in order to deduce what’s in the glass and pass the test.
That seems to me a kind of closed-circle way to taste wine. I have no gripe against it, and I can appreciate the amount of hard work that goes into tasting a wine double-blind and being able to say it’s Bordeaux or whatever. That’s pretty good. It’s the Cirque du Soleil of winetasting: flashy, entertaining, a crowd pleaser.
I might have gone that route, except that the way I learned to taste wine was entirely different. It was basically the old British way, transferred to our shores via the media I read when I was coming up (the San Francisco newspapers, wine books) and, most importantly, Wine Spectator magazine. The latter was my Bible in those early years. I thought it was the greatest magazine that ever existed: I couldn’t wait to get my copy in the mail (this was when it was a tabloid, not a big glossy ‘zine the way it is now). And from Wine Spectator, I learned to taste wine using the 100-point system, in a way that—let’s admit it—is not nearly as rigorous as the M.S. grid.
So exactly how does the amorphous 100-point system work? Well, to begin with, it’s a subjective impression, but it’s not subjective to the point of random incoherence. The proper use of the 100-point system depends on extensive experience, the kind needed to draw upon a sense-memory of what “perfection” is and then comparing all subsequent wines with that rarely-encountered Unicorn. The way I taste is like a shortcut around the M.S. grid. It’s a lot easier: you don’t have to go through all those complicated line items, but then again, the sommelier doesn’t taste for quality; she tastes to be able to deductively identify a wine. I taste for quality. Those are two different things.
When I taste a wine single-blind, it’s not important for me to figure out what it is. That concept never even occurred to me when I was coming up. It would have seemed senseless. I tasted then, and now, with respect to the overall impression the wine made in my mouth and brain. Was it a Wow! or a Dud, and where on that continuum does it fall? After all, that’s the way actual human beings taste: do they like the wine, and if so, how much do they like it, or do they loathe it? It never seemed important to me to taste deductively; I wanted to learn to taste hedonistically (as Mr. Parker might put it). I wanted to get a job as a wine critic, and when I was coming up, wine critics got successful jobs based on criteria such as writing ability, knowledge of wine, and team skills, and not on deductive tasting. In fact, such deductive tasting is, to the best of my knowledge, a comparatively recent practice. Wine professionals never tasted the way sommeliers taste. Throughout history they have tasted the way I taste.
Is one method better? Well, like I said, the way you taste depends on your job. Wine writers of my generation never troubled themselves to think deductively (although there’s a certain amount of deduction involved in my kind of tasting). We either tasted openly, in which case deduction was completely pointless, or we tasted in single-blind flights, in which we knew many things about the wines (region, vintage, variety, etc.) and were simply comparing them qualitatively. That’s still the way I taste, but there’s something else: since I came up as a magazine writer, the object of my thoughts whenever I tasted wine was the consumer. I always thought of those anonymous people out there who might buy a wine based on my recommendation. They don’t care about the M.S. grid. They don’t get into that level of analysis. They just want to experience pleasure, and perhaps some good wine-and-food pairing too. And so that’s how I taste: Does the wine give me pleasure? Because if it gives me pleasure it should give most consumers pleasure. And if it gives me pleasure, how much pleasure does it give me? That’s where the points come in. Ninety points is a lot of pleasure. One hundred points is pleasure unbounded—a wine that’s right up there in my sense-memory with the greatest I’ve ever had. I might be less able than a somm to say “This is a Cabernet Sauvignon and this is a Merlot” but that sort of thing doesn’t matter to me, nor do I think the readers of wine magazines (or diners in a restaurant) care about that in a writer or server. They want someone who cares about them, who is able to predict for them what they’ll like, who can tell them stories about the wines. You don’t have to taste deductively in order to be that person. I think, ultimately, the skills needed to be a Master Sommelier are exactly that: the skills needed to be a Master Sommelier. One develops expertise at that sort of thing in order to climb the sommelier ladder and append those magic letters, M.S., after one’s name. That helps to get a job nowadays, in this intensely competitive environment, but how it helps consumers isn’t clear to me.
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…