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Learning from somms



Great time yesterday tasting wine over lunch at a fabulous restaurant, The Loft, at the Montage Resort in Laguna Beach. “Fancy-schmancy,” my grandma Rose would have called it. Chef Casey Overton’s food rocked; the pairings were excellent. Our guests were about a dozen local somms and retailers. The hours flew by and the conversation never lagged, so I guess you’d say it was a success. I certainly enjoyed myself.

It always amazes me that professionals on the retail side of things are so interested in my former job as a wine critic. I mean, I’m there to talk about the wines, the vineyards, the winemakers and so on. There are certainly great stories to tell. But people want to hear about the nuts and bolts of the critic’s job. How do you taste? How do you score? These are things of great interest, I guess, but it’s all the more strange to me given that most somms have a natural (and perfectly understandable) antipathy to critics. They (somms) work really hard to master their trades, and then in comes some customer who wants the latest 100-point wine, instead of depending on the somm’s latest insights.

That would annoy me, too.

I think for somms, and better retailers, the critics basically landed their jobs through a combination of luck and maybe some skill, but certainly not the skill set that a sommelier develops, especially one who’s deep into the certification process. They look at critics and think “That guy doesn’t know nearly as much as I do about [fill in the blank], and yet he’s got more influence on consumers than I’ll have in a lifetime.” This is a profound truth, and there is an element of unfairness. At the same time, it’s life—reality—the way things are—so the somms have to deal with it. Perhaps some of the fascination with the critic’s job is because most critics seem like remote beings, up on some pedestal or magic mountain or something. They’re not really human: they’re brands. There’s the Robert Parker brand, the Jim Laube brand, the Antonio Galloni brand, and, up until last year, the Steve Heimoff brand. I don’t think that’s the way any of us planned it, or even wanted it, but it’s how things turned out.

For myself, one of the biggest challenges of being branded was to try to put people at their ease. But we (all of us; the media, buyers, consumers) have elevated critics to such high levels that they can almost seem like gods. This is understandable in part because we have given over to the critics one of the most fundamental parts of our minds—the ability to make judgments—a part of our mind that really should never be entrusted to someone else. And then, in order to justify this abdication of our own judgment-making capacity, we convince ourselves that the critics must have some insight into the divine—must be in touch with something greater than we can comprehend—otherwise how could we live with ourselves, knowing we’ve entrusted our judgment to a mere mortal?

Of course, that’s nonsense. Critics aren’t divine, any more than anyone else. But the psychology of how we think and make decisions and feel about ourselves is at play here. These are enormous stakes, of enormous interest to people who think about such things, so it’s only natural that these somms and retailers would want to know more about how a critic thinks. We’re all trying to make sense of our world, aren’t we?

All of which makes me wonder about the future of critics. Will they always be with us? Will they go away? If they do, to whom will the public turn for advice? We are at a crucial crossroads here. The public is more confused than ever, what with the proliferation of wine brands, but at the same time they’re more ornery than ever. Older wine drinkers, who are rapidly fading away, are more conservative, but younger ones—bless their souls—are adventurous. This means that any winery can be famous for fifteen minutes. The question is, how does a winery achieve brand loyalty? This is the biggest question the industry faces going forward.

The (sometimes) uneasy relationship between critics and somms



Like lions and tigers sharing a contested hunting ground, sommeliers and critics circle each other’s turfs, eyeing each other warily across the veldt.

Scattered on that field is the game both sides seek: wine consumers. Somms want to sell them wine; critics want to influence their buying decisions. Therein lies a conflict. Though they both wear the mantle of “gatekeeper,” critics and somms often seem to be in charge of different gates.

Somms tend to see critics as uncredentialed—folks who one way or another achieved career success with little or no formal training. They—the somms—worked extraordinarily hard to get where they are and, especially if they’re Master Sommeliers, feel (with a certain amount of justification) that their superior knowledge makes them the kings of the wine jungle.

Critics tend to view somms with some envy. They know that they—the critics—never had to go through any sort of rigorous certification process, whereas the somms did. Critics may even feel lucky to have landed their jobs. But they—the critics—also know that they wield far greater power, in general, than somms.

The critics’ power extends over broad stretches of geography. If they happen to write for one of the major wine periodicals, their words, recommendations and scores are seen by millions, either directly or indirectly, through quotes in third-party publications, shelf talkers, marketing materials, social media and the like.

The somm’s power typically extends only across the square footage of the restaurant floor. There, the somm reigns supreme. Step outside the door, and the power of the somm melts away, replaced by the power of the critic.

Critics are seldom if ever disdainful of somms. Why would they be? They recognize the somm’s achievements and are respectful of it. Somms tend to disdain critics. They may be in awe of the critic’s influence, but they can’t help but feel like they know more, which makes them sense that there’s an imbalance in the world. This attitude is reinforced by the fact that the sommelier community is a tightly-knit one, filled with mutually-reinforcing beliefs, whereas the “critical community,” so far as it exists at all, is quite the opposite. Critics don’t socialize much with each other, and there is within that small circle a certain degree of suspicion. Lesser critics want to be A-listers, while even A-listers look at Parker and think, “Why can’t I be him?”

Critics also point to a built-in weakness of the sommelier community: Somms are trying to sell wine. No matter where they work (for a winery, a restaurant or whatever), somms have a stake in their employer’s financial success. Critics, on the contrary, say they have no agenda whatsoever when it comes to wine. They don’t care who’s successful and who’s not, who sells what and who doesn’t. They’re in the enviable position of simply telling the truth.

When I was a critic, that was certainly my feeling. I recognized that my knowledge of the world’s wines was not as broad as that of some somms. However, I treasured my independence, and felt that it gave me the ability to be fiercely objective, without regard to the consequences—even for advertisers in the magazine I wrote for. Whenever I ran into a somm—usually in a restaurant—I sensed two things: great knowledge, but also an underlying motive to sell wine. I must admit this gave me a certain moral superiority.

Now I work for a company that sends me out on sales trips with their Master Sommeliers. I see the potential ironies, but I’m mindful of the fact that I’ve long admired and respected Jackson Family Wines for the obvious reason that their wines are so good, at every price point. I sometimes wonder, if I’d been offered a job by a winery whose wines I didn’t respect, would I have taken it? What if the remuneration had been very high? This is a hypothetical and so it’s impossible for me to say, since it never happened. But I think that, if I had to promote wines I didn’t care for, I would be a very unhappy ex-critic. As it is, I’m a happy one.

Have a great weekend!

The personal touch: Talking about wine



I’ve always liked talking about wine with whomever—I mean, it can be someone more knowledgeable than me, or someone who’s just starting out. As long as they’re interested, I’ll go on all day.

It’s amazing how much information we store in our brains about certain subjects that attract us. I’ve forgotten many things in my life, probably most of what I’ve experienced—but my store of wine knowledge appears to be intact. When I really get going, facts spring to my mind and thence to my tongue that I read about decades ago. But they’re still there.

This is so, I think, because of the passion I have for wine. From the very beginning (1979), I learned everything about it I could. I read, read, read, asked questions of people, and took tasting notes. I would have thought most of it was long gone, but it’s still in there, because it was assembled with loving care, and what you learn with love seems to stick with you.

And I’ve been talking about wine a lot, more than I usually did when I was at Wine Enthusiast. That was a fairly solitary gig. You’re tasting at home, and most of the writing is done at home, too. Of course, there are road trips, but when you’re a working wine critic, being on the road has to be balanced with work: the more you travel the less actual work you get done. It’s important to get out into wine country and meet new people, experience new things and walk the ground, but I found, in my later years at the magazine, that it was increasingly difficult to balance work and travel in a way that was comfortable for me. That was one of the reasons—although far from the only one—that I left Enthusiast.

In the past few weeks I’ve been on a number of trips for Jackson Family Wines, representing the company in various capacities. The people I’ve been meeting range from beginners (such as at tasting rooms) to the most sophisticated sommeliers and merchants. So, as you can imagine, the subject matter of our conversations varies. But one thing that doesn’t change is what I think of as the essence of a wine conversation: And that is that we’re talking about a beverage that lends itself to extended conversation regardless of your level of knowledge.

Isn’t that something? I suppose the manufacturers and salesmen of soup can talk about soup all day and all night, but this probably isn’t a topic that would interest most of us. And, with all due respect for soup, there’s less history, romance and intellectual interest about soup than there is with wine.

One interesting thing I’ve found being out on the road tasting with somms and other high-end buyers is that the technical stuff about the wines doesn’t seem to be what they want to talk about. This may partly be a function that it’s me they’re tasting with—there’s a great deal of interest in my former job—but, as someone remarked to me, they talk about technical stuff all day, and besides, if they’re really interested, they can always refer to a tech sheet.

Instead, our conversations seem to go more in the direction of stories, anecdotes, personal experiences we’ve all had, and it’s fun to share them. Of course, there’s also a lot of opinionating. I’m watching, as I write this, one of those innumerable sports talk shows on Fox where the TV guys are talking about who will win Tuesday’s game in Kansas City. (Go Giants!!) I love listening to this kind of stuff, even though in the long run it’s totally meaningless, because it has no bearing whatsoever on the actual game. It’s just a bunch of guys talking through their hats. But these guys love baseball, they live it and study it and thrive on it, and so their conversations are worth overhearing (assuming you like baseball). Same with wine. Put two of us together who live, love and thrive on wine, and you’re gonna get a gabfest.

To me here’s really no difference talking about wine with an expert or an amateur. When it comes to a nice conversation, it doesn’t matter. Someone always knows more than you, and someone always knows less. So just say what you have to say, and let the conversation begin!

To Santa Maria Valley, and my dinner at RN74



Off to Santa Barbara today, for a quick trip to the Santa Maria Valley and Cambria and Byron. I always like traveling through coastal wine country, especially at this time of the year; as you pass by the Santa Lucia Highlands, and the vast stretches of southern Monterey and the San Bernabe Vineyard – as you zip through the Central Coast, with Arroyo Grande and Edna Valley just to the east, marked by the Seven Sisters – as you come into Los Alamos and the vineyards pick up again, sprawling on both sides of the road – you get a real sense of the terroir of the coast. Always just to the west is the mighty Pacific. Sometimes you can see it, sometimes the road curls too far inland, cutting the ocean off from sight; but always you can feel it in the cool winds, and I swear I can smell it, a sort of ionized, salt-laden scent that reminds me of Manzanilla sherry.

This sense of terroir is very different from the more technical analyses that we writers love to engage in, but to get a more generalized sense of the lay of the land – one which you feel subtly in your fingertips but can’t precisely define – is perhaps the more important way to understand terroir. The emotive and intuitive sense always has been important in a thorough understanding of wine. I had dinner last night with the Master Sommelier, Sur Lucero, who spoke of perceiving wine in terms of colors and shapes. I, myself, do not. When it came my turn to describe what we were drinking, I turned to human characteristics, for different wines always remind me of different sorts of people. There are shy, reticent wines, boastful wines, wines of elegance and charm. There are common wines, rude and ill-raised; then there are what I can wines of breed. We drank, courtesy of the sommelier at RN74, an older Burgundy, a Latricieres-Chambertin, whose vintage was unknown; the label bearing the year had fallen off. Sur guessed it to be 1985. It was a magnificent specimen that changed constantly in the glass, never drying out even after several hours but always gaining in force. With beef tartare it was excellent; ditto with gnocchi, and at the end of the meal, when the server brought a little plate of chocolates and other sweet dainties, that Burgundy was a fine partner. As I ate my first little chocolate and sipped the wine, and before I could say anything, Sur observed – correctly – “Stripped away the fruit, didn’t it?”

“Yes,” I replied, “but still a good pairing.” With the fruit, which was massive, now having receded, one could appreciate the wine’s structure even more. Sur seemed to like that, so I continued. There is a concept, I told him, of being raised properly by one’s parents, to be kind and respectful to everyone, King and servant alike. I always had been struck by interviews with people who met Queen Elizabeth. “Such a nice lady” is the usual take. “Puts you at your ease. So easy to talk with.” This is the sign of good breeding. In the same way, that red Burgundy got along with every food I had it with. I’m sure someone could have come up with something it clashed with, but it was a wine whose very universality was perhaps its greatest recommendation. A wine like that possesses, not so much a distinct personality, as the absence of a personality: it is the Platonic ideal of wine, and as such embraces, with love, any food with which wine, even theoretically, can be enjoyed. For that reason it was what some people call a conceptual wine.

At any rate, it was a lovely evening, and even though Sur and I didn’t agree 100% of the time on things like In Pursuit of Balance, I was very grateful to benefit from his take on wine. He also has a great (if frightening and sobering) personal story of the Napa earthquake.

Have a great weekend!

When sommeliers go wild



“There is a group of wine directors out there that feel that their mission is to educate the consumer. I think this is a dangerous philosophy. If people want to ask questions, fine; but if you’re going to stand there and proselytize, well, check please.”

I didn’t say it: The immortal Fred Dame, M.S. did, in the August issue of The Tasting Panel magazine. (Sorry, I could not find a link.) So if you’re a somm with hurt feelings, don’t blame me, play the Dame game! But seriously, this is an important topic Fred alludes to, because it addresses some of the most controversial questions in today’s restaurants: How to best serve the customer who, after all, is the basis of the entire industry? And what exactly is the proper role of the sommelier?

The somm arguably is the most informed person about wine in the restaurant on any given night, especially when it comes to her own wine list. She knows more than 99.9% of the customers do. The risk is that there can be a tendency on the part of very knowledgeable people to showcase their knowledge to others, especially when they’re getting paid to do it. This can be tendentious, even tiresome, if done with a heavy hand. Or it can be interesting and educational. The somm has to walk a delicate line, trying to find that balance. I take Fred Dame at his word when he talks about “a group of wine directors out there” who cross over the line. He knows a lot more about the world of the sommelier than I ever will, so when Fred says something is happening—and that it’s “dangerous”—we should heed his words.

This relates directly to the area of the overly-precious wine list. I think I’ve mentioned before on this blog about the phenomenon, which seems to be on the rise, of the wine director whose wine list is so arcane, so dominated by obscure countries and varieties, that average customers, frustrated at not being able to find things they understand and like, ask if they can just have a nice Chardonnay! It’s perfectly understandable for a somm, who’s worked long and hard to get where she is, to have developed a personal preference for obscure wines. It’s also understandable that the somm would then want—passionately—to share those wines with her clients, the diners. There’s joy in pedagogy—but not in pedantry.

I “get it” when somms get bored and tired of the same old popular wines and varieties. I used to get tired of having to write the same “what wine to drink at Thanksgiving” article every year! It’s a form of burnout common among sommeliers, wine writers and many other people who perform repetitive functions.

But it seems to me the sommelier has to put her own feelings aside, in favor of those of the customers. I myself have generally good experiences with sommeliers, but etched into my memory are some awful ones. The bad ones all have this in common: The somm pushed his or her own agenda onto me, with disastrous results (from my point of view). Being a rather gentle and non-confrontational soul, I almost always refrain from negative feedback to a somm or a server, even when I’m unhappy with the way things turned out. This may avoid an unpleasant scene, but it doesn’t do a thing toward making my restaurant experience more pleasant.

I’m willing to let a somm advise me about certain wines with which I may be unfamiliar. This is especially true if (a) the somm can bring me a little tasting sample of the wine he wants me to try, and (b) I have a guarantee that, if the suggested wine fails to meet my expectations, I can substitute something else for it, and not get charged for the first glass. (I would never gamble on a full bottle of a wine I knew nothing about, based merely on the somm’s advice. Way too risky.)

But I don’t want a somm, or anyone else in the restaurant, second guessing my preference, or making me feel like an idiot, just because I want a rich, barrel-fermented Chardonnay with my scallops. I don’t know if that is specifically what Fred Dame had in mind by his “dangerous” remark, but since we’re all in the business of trying to get people to like wine, it’s not a good idea to alienate them with pontification, pandering or pretension.

Spotlight: A conversation with Michael Mina’s (until yesterday) lead sommelier, Josiah Baldivino

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Josiah Baldivino is one of the more delightful somms out there. Even in the rarified atmosphere of Michael Mina, where he was—until yesterday—lead sommelier (more on that in a moment), he’s an unpretentious guy. Josiah, 32, and his wife, Stevie, live across the street from me. We had coffee yesterday morning in our Oakland neighborhood at Room 389.

SH: So what does the lead sommelier at Michael Mina do?

JB: The way the whole [Michael Mina] group is set up is, Rajat Parr is the wine director over all the restaurants, so he’s kind of like the big brother in a way. Each individual restaurant, though, has its own lead sommelier, who runs the wine program and does all the purchasing. So what I like about it is that each lead sommelier has the ability to do whatever they want, so it’s almost as though they’re the wine director.

So you chose the wines?

Oh, yeah.

You didn’t get a memo from HQ, “Here’s what we’re buying.”

No. I mean, we would definitely get allocations and stuff, which I would say works in our favor as a group, when we can commit to a lot more than just one restaurant could. So things I got sent were mostly allocations, and I’m totally fine with getting allocations of things like Coche-Dury and stuff like that.

Speaking of Raj, he’s known for, among other things, In Pursuit of Balance. Their thing seems to be low alcohol, however you define it. So at Michael Mina, do you have California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on the wine list?


And do you have wines that would not be balanced, from an In Pursuit of Balance perspective?

[laughs] I would say there’s definitely some wines on the list that do have a bit of higher alcohol, and maybe to some are not balanced. But in my mind, if somebody’s into something that isn’t considered balanced, then whatever, just go with it and order it. My main goal as the buyer is to make sure there’s something for everybody on the list. I don’t want anyone to feel like they’re not normal, or they’re not in the know. If they want something that some people think isn’t correct, then I’m going to give it to them.

What is your background? How did you get to be a somm?

Started in college at Cal State Northridge. Had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, so I took business management. In order to get your degree, you had to do an internship. So I did my internship at Silverlake Wine, down in L.A., and just got hooked. Started buying books, signed up for the Court of Master Sommelier program, moved to New York to cut my gums and get some real floor time experience, and then starting working in the Oak Room and ended up at Bar Boulud.

Did you get your M.S.?

No. I passed everything, got all the way to Advanced, and now just putting the whole thing on hold so I can open my business.

Why did you want an M.S.?

I don’t know if I really wanted the actual M.S. I really got into the program just to get my foot in the door and get some experience. I mean, I had that goal in mind at one point in my life, to get an M.S., but right now I’m happy with the way things are going. It’s like the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Michael Mina is arguably one of the most glamorous names in restaurants. You ended up as Lead Somm at his namesake San Francisco restaurant. How did that happen?

[laughs] I don’t really know, to be honest! I came out here from New York, and had a lot of fire. So I ended up working [at Michael Mina] under someone else, and once they left, they basically needed a lead sommelier to run the ship. And I, being a young kid, told them, “Hey, I want to do this, let me try it.” And they were a little hesitant at first, but after I told them, “Look, give me a couple months, pay me the same amount, I don’t want any promotion, just let me do what I can do, and if you’re happy with the results, then you can give me the keys to the Ferrari, and if you’re not, then I’ll happily step back down.” So…

Were you on straight salary, or did you get a percentage of your sales?

It’s basically like a server-type thing, like all restaurants. You get paid the same amount. You get a certain amount of points on the floor, and blah blah blah.

Do you make more money if you sell more expensive wine?

No. Not necessarily.

But sometimes? Because people wonder if the somm is pushing that $100 bottle instead of the $75 bottle because they make a little more.

I’ve definitely heard of some restaurants that encourage that kind of behavior, but I would say, at Mina, they’re pretty cool. Sure, you want to hit your sales and make your costs, which is very important. At the end of the day, you just want to make sure that people are happy, so when they come in, you’ve done everything you can to get them what they want and make those numbers. Sure, it would be great just to sell $30 bottles all the time, and that’s what I would do when I go out. But at the end of the day, sometimes people want to go a little bigger, especially when they come to a prestigious place like Michael Mina; they’re ready to celebrate, and you’ve got to have wines for those types of people, as well as wines for people who are just going out to eat on a Tuesday.

We are now on the very block where your new shop, Bay Grape, is set to open in August! What is Bay Grape?

Bay Grape is a wine shop that my wife, Stevie, and I are opening; she currently works for the Guild of Sommeliers. It’s a shop we want everybody to come to and feel comfortable with. The whole idea started because, as wine professionals on our day off, we always wanted somewhere we could go, like a cool wine shop, and just find a cool bottle and talk to someone who works there. But for whatever reason, it’s kind of hard to find that these days. So we decided to open this, and just be basically a really cool place where people can come, whether you’re really into wine, or just getting into wine. They can come, they can learn, they can find hard-to-find bottles, everyday bottles, and they can taste everyday in the store. We just make sure that all the bottles we have have some kind of story, are of good value, and most of them are bottles that are often overlooked in restaurants and wine shops. So we’re doing the hard work for people by taking our years of experience and tasting and finding the best bottles for the buck. And we’ll also have classes two or three times a week, which also involve tastings. We’re so close to wine country, we want to have people come down and pour their wines. So we’re striving to be a neighborhood corner spot where people just come and hang out and learn about wine and share wine with their friends and neighbors.

Will there be food?

Yeah: cheese, charcuterie, bread, pickles, and we’re doing a C.S.A. (community-supported agriculture) pickup every Thursday.

This is downtown Oakland, although people are now calling it Uptown. This is my neighborhood; Old Crow Tattoo is on the same block. Explain the thinking behind opening this kind of establishment in downtown Oakland that really hasn’t seen anything like this, and has had a troubled past–although the buzz now is that it’s coming back with restaurants and so on.

For us, we’re basically neighbors too, so the thing I love about this area is that, although it is busy and, according to our neighborhood meeting group, it’s the most densely-populated neighborhood in Alameda County, it has that sense of neighborhood. People walk by and say “Good morning.” People are very cool; there’s a lot of young professionals, and old professionals,* all kinds of walks of life. But at the end of the day, there’s that sense of community, and that’s where we wanted to do this concept, because that’s what we’re all about.

And you quit your job to do this thing!

[laughs] Yeah! All in. After 3-1/2 years, today is my very last day at Michael Mina.

I mean, you had—I think it’s fair to say—one of the most desirable—


–jobs that a sommelier could have, and yet, you left it. So my last question is, Was it a tough decision?

Very tough. Very, very tough. The only way I would have left Michael Mina is if I were doing my own thing. And this opportunity came up, and my wife and I don’t have any kids yet, so we figured we might as well give it a shot. The last thing I would want to do is regret not doing this. So we’re going to do it and make it happen, and it’s going to be awesome!

[Bay Grape will open in August. The address is 376 Grand Avenue, in Oakland.]


* I think Josiah added that for my benefit.

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