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.
I don’t often wander into the area of bottle closures, which aside from one’s personal preferences involves vastly complex issues of wine chemistry, engineering, physics and so forth. I’m on record as having said only a few things about closures: I hate those plastic, injection-molded “corks” that are difficult to pull out and then swell up so that you can’t reinsert them. I extra hate that hard plastic capsule that’s supposed to be “wax” but requires a chisel to remove (and at some risk to the health of one’s hand). I have nothing for or against natural corks, except when they’re tainted. And screwtops don’t bother me in the least.
Beyond that, the whole closure thing has been MEGO for me. Obviously, though, for the wine industry, it’s a major preoccupation.
I was invited to lunch (at Pican, Oakland’s prime source of cholesterol) by two folks from Nomacorc, a North Carolina-based company that makes a polyethylene “cork.” The only reason I accepted was because I realized I needed to know more about this world of closures. So here’s what I learned. This is in no way a product endorsement of Nomacorc.
The firm began in 1999. Nomacorc currently stoppers 45% of all U.S. bottled wines, selling 700 million stoppers annually in this country. This is mainly due to their success with brands like Gnarly Head, Kendall-Jackson, Ravenswood, Robert Mondavi Private Selection and Woodbridge, Clos du Bois and other widely distributed brands. These brands at first was hesitant to embrace a non-cork stopper, but once a “critical mass” was reached, it made it easier for others to buy Nomacorc. (“If K-J is using it, I guess we can, too.”)
My hosts were Katie Myers, a P.R. manager from New York, and Mark Coleman, a sales manager from Sonoma. Their job, of course, was to persuade me of Nomacorc’s superior qualities. We all know that natural cork has its problems. The taint rate, while lower than it used to be, still occurs with regularity, sometimes in expensive bottles. Screwtops have their own challenges: namely, oxidative and reductive wines. Katie told me (I can’t vouch for it) that even in screwtop-crazy Australia, producers are having second thoughts, and are looking to alternatives like Nomacorc, which claims to have made huge advances in “oxygen management.”
Both Katie and Mark explained that Nomacorc now produces stoppers with four different OTRs (oxygen transfer rates), meaning that each type allows a different amount of oxygen to get into the bottle over time–a constant rate that can be measured, as opposed to the inconstant transfer rate of corks, no two of which are alike since it’s a natural product. Since whites are less tolerant of oxygen, a producer might prefer a Nomacorc with a lower OTR, whereas reds, which can benefit from a little oxygen, might do better with a higher OTR. (Screwtops, of course, allow no oxygen in or out.)
But it’s not that simple, as a tasting showed. We had two Hungarian Sauvignon Blancs. Both were identical, made the same way, and bottled at the same time. The only difference was the OTR of their Nomacorks. My hosts asked me to try them both and say what I thought. Wine #1 was fresh, clean and fruity; I liked it. Wine #2 was darker, heavier, softer, more honeyed. It did not strike me as quite fresh. When I told them my results, they smiled. Wine #1 used a Nomacorc with a lower OTR.
I personally didn’t care for wine #2, but I could see how somebody else might prefer it. Mark explained that a producer might bottle a single wine with two different Nomacorcs, for shipment to different markets. The Chinese palate, for example, might prefer the softer, heavier wine #2, whereas an American palate might prefer #1.
I asked Katie and Mark the biggest problems they run into in persuading producers to use Nomacork, and they replied “legacy problems” and “the perception issue.” The latter is that so many people perceive anything but a natural cork as cheap and inferior. The former refers to the fact that plastic closures have had a dreadful time in the States, and despite quality improvements (in things like ease of extraction and reinsertion), people still remember the problems of old. In our conversation there inevitably arose the topic of marketing. Marketing and sales managers are notorious for being frightened of change and innovation. Even if a winemaker, fed up with natural cork, wants to shift to, say, Nomacorc, a marketing or sales person might forbid it, on the grounds the wine would no longer be sellable because of “the perception problem.” Katie in particular smiled as she explained that a large part of her job is persuading such managers to overcome their doubts; as Mark put it, “Marketing is scared of their own shadow.”
I don’t have a horse in this race. I don’t care how a winery closes its wines, as long as my peeves outlined in the first paragraph are satisfied. But I came away from my lunch at Pican more aware of how complicated the world of closures is, and how irrational consumer attitudes can be. I also came away stuffed. Pulled pork sandwich on a Kaiser role, hush puppies, homemade potato chips, deviled eggs. Highly recommended.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Based on reader comments, I understand that some screwtops do allow for OTR. I was going by my understanding of what the Nomacorc people told me.
One of the most fascinating cultural aspects of wine in America is the attitude people have that it’s something elite, difficult to understand and not for the common person.
I have a lot of younger friends who share these attitudes. It’s not that they don’t like to drink; they do. They like beer and cocktails and will get rip roaring drunk on a Saturday night. But wine? Something about it just doesn’t interest them. I will, on occasion, treat them to a wine I think is very good: a rich Napa Cabernet, a sweet dessert wine, sparkling wine. They’ll happily drink it, and concede it’s pretty good–but they’ll never buy a bottle of wine for themselves or order a glass of wine in a restaurant or night club.
Call it the Elite Paradox: wine’s upscale image keeps “ordinary” people from liking it.
How we arrived at this situation is complex. I’ve written about it before–the elitest image predates modern American society, having been imported from Old Europe, and then was boosted by inept advertising following the Repeal of Prohibition that sought to tell war- and Depression-weary Americans they could better their lives with a glass of vino. The epitome of this was a T.V. commercial, back when I was young, showing a wedding couple on a little boat in on a pond, he in tuxedo, she in bridal white. They were toasting with a domestic champagne. The message was that you can drink on your wedding day, but no other time. Wine, in other words, was an aspirational product.
For a more modern peek at how this attitude survives, look no further than Taylor Swift. The Grammy award-winning country music star recently told Esquire magazine that “she drinks wine on occasion because, ‘It makes me feel classy.’”
Analyze that. Here’s a young woman with, let us presume, more money than you or I will make in our lifetime. She has the ability to go anywhere at anytime, in high style, stay at fabulous resorts, eat at the best restaurants, party at the most “in” clubs and buy anything she wants. Sounds pretty classy to me. And yet, give her a glass of wine, and she feels “classy”–exalted, stylish, more fashionable.
And not just any wine. “If it doesn’t taste like candy or sparkles, I usually don’t drink it,” she adds. Taylor Swift, in other words, is The Sparkling Moscato Girl, the poster child for why Moscato is the hottest wine in the country.
I’m not criticizing her or anyone else, I’m just observing. Now, on a related note, I read that “By the middle of the coming decade, there will be more jobs in New York City in hotels and restaurants than on Wall Street and in banks…”.
The Financial Center of the World now has decided to be the Lifestyle Capital of the World, as jobs in the financial sector fall and profits at Wall Street banks topple. (Let’s pass the hat…) Somehow Taylor Swift’s “classy” feeling about wine and the proliferation of restaurants in New York seem connected. I feel it viscerally but I can’t quite put my finger on it.
Here in the Bay Area we have a restaurant boom too. It’s amazing. San Francisco’s food gossip columnists can barely keep up. In my home town of Oakland there’s been such an explosion of restaurants and bars in my neighborhood, they’ve had to give it its own name: Uptown. San Francisco also is enjoying a brand new tech bubble, mostly built on apps, and centered South of Market (SOMA), near AT&T Park, surely the hottest neighborhood in town. (Well, maybe the Mission is. But SOMA and The Mission are really one big connected neighborhood.) I think in the future historians will look back at this era–roughly defined as starting with the Great Recession and ending when?–as a Golden Age of eating and drinking, with young people (like Taylor Swift) spending whatever money they make enjoying themselves at night. Why not? They have no idea if they’ll be alive in 5 years. They’re young and good-looking now, so they might as well get their kicks while they can. From the clubs in my hood, across the Bay Bridge to the joints around North Beach and the Financial District, through SOMA and over to the Mission and on up into the Castro, they’re partying like it’s 2099. I like to think our young people like wine more than Taylor Swift does, but I could be wrong. One thing’s for sure: they like their Moscato and their sweet infused cocktails. And so, for that matter, do I.
Here’s an interesting report, from our very own University of California at Berkeley, as reported in the San Francisco Business Times: “[G]ood online reviews on Yelp do indeed bring in more customers.” Specifically, “a half star rating increase (1 to 5 scale) meant a 19 percent greater likelihood that a restaurant’s seats would fill up during peak hours.”
The researchers did not have an explanation for this phenomenon (which actually has some important limits, which I’ll get to in a minute), but I do. Now, I’m one of those people who likes and depends on restaurant reviews. We have a ton of restaurants here in the San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley area, of all types, at all price levels, from just about every ethnicity in the world. So it can be confusing and intimidating to decide on a new place to eat. Under the circumstances, I’ll often turn to two sources for recommendations: Yelp, and the San Francisco Chronicle’s great restaurant reviewer, Michael Bauer. A bunch of great Yelp reviews is enough to persuade me to try someplace out, while a single Bauer “must eat there” does the same thing.
I think that’s the reason why Yelp reviews work: people, like me, believe in peer recommendations (such as Yelp’s) and also in expert reccos (such as Michael Bauer’s). Of course, just 1 or 2 glowing peer reccos for a particular place won’t work for me (or anyone else, I should think), because they could always be from the owner’s cousin and mother. And 1 or 2 glowing reviews won’t do it at all, if they’re negated by 6 or 7 “worst experience of my life,” “would never go back there,” “AVOID AT ALL COSTS!”
But one great Michael Bauer review will send me to the joint. I guess, to my way of thinking, there is an emerging parity between expert reviews, on the one hand, and peer reviews, on the other, but that parity only works if the peer reviews (such as Yelp’s) are overwhelmingly positive. So Michael Bauer isn’t going to have to look for a new job anytime soon. When it comes to food, people still depend on restaurant critics. (At least, in a foodie town like Ess Eff.)
I mentioned above that the U.C. Berkeley study had important limits:
(1) “For restaurants with Michelin stars, for example, the Yelp reviews were irrelevant.”
(2) “Restaurants that were rated in popular guidebooks or newspaper rankings got less of a Yelp bump. They ‘did not see a statistically significant effect from the Yelp rankings,’ the economists said.”
Let’s take (2) first. This just confirms my own reasoning: I’ll take Michael Bauer over Yelp 95% of the time. Even if there were positive Yelp reviews, one critical Bauer review canceled them out. Call me old-fashioned, but I still believe experience counts over simple enthusiasm (such as the type you see on Yelp and, for that matter, on “Check, Please!).
As for (1), my hunch is that the kind of people who review restaurants on Yelp probably don’t frequent Michelin restaurants. Why not? They’re too expensive; the people who eat at French Laundry, Coi and Benu are not likely to post their experiences on Yelp, and the people who are considering eating at French Laundry, Coi and Benu are not turning to Yelp for advice.
You just knew I was going to make a connection to wine reviewing, didn’t you? Well, I am, and here it is: Inexpensive wines are more likely to see spikes in sales from online social media sources, such as blogs and Twitter. Expensive wines are not, because the kind of people who can afford them don’t blog or tweet, and if someone has enough money to buy, say, Shafer Hillside Select ($230 for the just released 2008), they couldn’t care less what some blogger has to say.
However, that well-heeled person considering buying the Shafer does care what the Michael Bauer-equivalent of the wine critic has to say about it. I’m not saying who that equivalent is (wouldn’t be prudent, not opening that can of worms), but I’m reviewing the ‘08 Hillside Select tomorrow, and if I give it a good score, I wouldn’t be surprised if it has an impact on demand.
Mark Bright is co-owner and wine director of Saison, which he founded three years ago with his friend and business partner, chef Josh Skenes. The restaurant has lately become famous for being the most expensive in San Francisco, despite its location in one of the city’s edgiest neighborhoods, the Mission District. A 22 course tasting menu, featuring 18 wines, will set you back $498. I wondered how Bright, a Bellagio alum who came up through the Michel Mina empire, and who calls Rajat Parr his “mentor,” goes about pairing wines under such complicated and challenging conditions. Skenes may change a course recipe in the middle of an evening, adding an ingredient that completely changes the directional compass of a dish, thus forcing Bright to quickly come up with a new wine to pair it with. We had a nice little chat about all this yesterday. Here are excerpts from that conversation, in what you can think of as a tour of a sommelier’s conscious mind.
First, Bright on that $498 price tag. “You have to realize, the ingredients are so expensive. We have a fulltime forager on staff! It’s not a price we aimed for, it just fairly covers our costs. Take the caviar course. The caviar itself is $20-$25 per serving, and that’s just one ingredient for one dish, plus there’s 21 other courses. Some courses have 40 ingredients in them. So it’s about us giving the diners everything we’ve got.”
Which comes first, the wine or the food? “It always starts with the food. I’ve worked so closely with Josh for so long that, when he explains what direction he’s going, I get a preliminary style of wine I think will work. Josh will tell me the dish’s components, I’ll taste them, separated on their own, to see their acidity levels, flavors and textures, and I’ll have it down to 2 or 3 wines at that point. If he changes something suddenly–which happens all the time, many things can happen in a kitchen, maybe he just wants to try something new–I’ll taste just the component change, not the entirely prepared new dish. It’s not a given that the wine has to change, but if the dish changes dramatically, then you have to change the wine. The thing is, every wine brings out different things in a dish. One wine might bring out the food’s earthiness, while another brings out the high tones and a third brings out the acidity. There’s no right pairing; there are a lot of amazing pairings, but you can never say there’s one perfect pairing with a dish. As long as both the food and the wine are enhanced, you’re doing something right. Also, wine grows and matures in the bottle, so in any given dish, if the ingredients remain the same over time, at some point that wine will take itself out of the running.”
Do we collectively get too precious and stressed out over perfect pairings? “You know what? A lot of the time, that does happen, and you know why? I see people doing wine pairings just to be creative and outlandish, completely forgetting the one important fact: it has to be delicious! More than it has to be creative. When I see people do that, I’m like, Wow, what are you trying to prove? You can’t force a good pairing. It just has to be delicious.”
What does Bright eat and drink at home? “Ice cream sandwiches! But honestly, I eat a lot of fish, because my fiance’s Chinese. I love Indian food. An earthy, meaty Syrah works great with it. Cornas, amazing, mind blowing. But I also keep a lot of beer in the fridge. When you’ve been drinking wine all day, there’s nothing better than a cold beer.”
Besha Rodell is a restaurant critic and blogger for LA Weekly. She blogged yesterday about an incident that occurred when she dined, along with some friends, at what she called “one of L.A.’s most highly regarded restaurants.”
From the sound of it, she and her companions had a very uncomfortable experience, and it had to do with the sommelier.
Go ahead, read her post and then come back here. Briefly, Besha and her friends can be faulted with not having asked the sommelier for the exact prices of the bottle and glasses of wine. So, in that respect, Besha doesn’t have any basis to complain about paying nearly $200 in wine costs. And since she knew in advance how “highly regarded” the restaurant was, she should have anticipated that she was going to end up spending a lot of money on vino.
On the other hand, the somm can be faulted for not telling Besha exactly how much the wines would cost. After all, “not too expensive” is in the eye of the beholder. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly who was responsible for the bad experience. There’s probably enough blame to go around for everyone to share.
When I read the article, I remembered how uncomfortable I sometimes am at restaurants with sommeliers. You’d think a wine writer like me would be able to negotiate the restaurant-somm waters with ease, but that’s not the case. There’s something that almost always makes me queasy, and I can’t quite put my finger on it.
I can relate to Besha’s not asking the somm for the specific price. She was embarrassed. Now, you can argue that she shouldn’t have been, but the fact is, lots of us are embarrassed to ask about bottle prices, unless we’re made out of money, and who is? If I were a sommelier, I like to think I’d be on the customer’s side in terms of helping him find the precise wine that suits his meal, in the most comfortable price zone. But I don’t know how somms are paid. Do they get a percentage of the bottle price? Are they under pressure to push more expensive bottles? And the tip, which is a percentage of the total bill, also goes up with more expensive wine, doesn’t it? Not knowing exactly what the somm’s motives are can make the somm-customer interaction murky and stressful. It’s almost like there’s a subtext to the conversation, with the somm prodding the customer upward in price and the customer resisting, politely and tactfully. That is not the stuff of which good restaurant experiences are built.
I don’t think the situation is the same with beer or cocktails. I mean, the customer’s relationship with a bartender is much easier than with a somm. It’s the fact that wine is so much more expensive that really distorts the dining experience. If you eat at a top restaurant, you almost feel like the servers and sommeliers and even the customers are looking at you and expecting you to spend a bundle on a bottle (or 2 or 3) of wine. (Don’t you look to see what other people are drinking? I do.) It’s like, if you don’t splurge, you risk looking like a cheapskate. I don’t know about you, but paying $120 for a bottle of wine, when the meal itself costs maybe $50, isn’t something I’m prepared to do very often. (And, as Besha knows, a bottle simply isn’t enough for a meal. You’re going to want a couple of glasses, too.)
How do you feel about the customer-sommelier experience? Does it ever make you feel weird? How do you handle it?