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Wine critics vs. sommeliers, Round 428. Ding!

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With all due respect to Robert Sinskey, whose wines I always admired, I think he struck the wrong tone in his recent opinion piece, which was published in Eater.

His basic premise—that the era of the mega-critic is over, along with the 100-point rating system—is widely held, and certainly worth a conversation. And we have been talking about it, for many years, without any particular resolution or consensus, I might add. So there’s nothing wrong with Robert having an opinion on that matter. About a year ago, I wrote a post I called “Goodbye to the era of the Big Critic,”  after having been one myself. I said, I for one will not regret the passing of the torch,” although I added this caveat: If the Big Critic is gone (or going) then of course we are now entering the era of the Small Critic. When anyone can be a critic then everyone can be a critic: the ultimate democratization of wine criticism results in claims like this:

New app can turn even the most clueless of wine drinkers into an instant connoisseur.

And, of course, if you’ve been following my blog for any amount of time, you know that I have some concerns about everybody going From clueless to connoisseur in an instant.”

Be that as it may, Robert is, as I wrote, perfectly entitled to his views. But here’s where his article turned me off: It’s too angry.

For one thing, Robert starts with the premise that wine critics are “arrogant”—his word. Why would he think that? The wine critics I’ve known are no more arrogant than the average person. Yes, a few have been real jerks—but they were widely perceived as such by winemakers and other writers, and were never welcomed into the wine community. But by far the majority of wine critics, including those who use the 100-point system, are fine, decent people. Robert’s assault on Robert Parker, in particular, sounds personal: he calls him “an ex-attorney” who had the nerve to “anoint himself the palate of America.” Well, Parker never anointed himself to any such thing. He was a creative, wine-loving entrepreneur who created a service that people valued, and he thrived accordingly. It wasn’t his fault he achieved so much power. So why the venom?

There’s more. When Robert writes of sommeliers that most “take their craft seriously,” that seems to imply that critics don’t. I can personally attest that they do! Then Robert unfavorably contrasts the critics who talk in “a singular voice” to sommeliers who “talk amongst each other…”. Well, as a wine consumer who can always use a little advice, I see no reason why I would trust, or gravitate towards, the recommendations of somms who “talk amongst themselves” over those of a wine critic, who presumably just mumbles to himself. I mean, what difference does it make who talks to whom? In the end, everybody’s recommendation—whether it’s a wine critic’s or a working sommelier’s—is just that person’s personal opinion.

As for Robert’s contention that sommeliers “challenge preconceived notions [and] kill sacred cows,” well, I never met a somm whose favorite red wine wasn’t Burgundy, and who didn’t rave about German Riesling. Talk about sacred cows!

Now, Robert is right on when he points out the positive aspects of the sommelier’s job, such as “ask[ing] questions to figure out what the customer likes and to suggest wines based on the food served.” That is indeed a very important role. But it is not the role of the wine critic. Apples and oranges. So it’s not fair to blame wine critics for not doing a job they’re not supposed to do anyway.

Anyway, having said all that, I love Robert’s use of the word “lumbersexual” to describe today’s “rock star” somms–although I do think mixologists are more lumbery lumbersexuals than somms.


Where do Master Sommeliers actually work?

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A few days ago, the one and only Hosemaster of Wine caused a dustup in the world of sommeliers with his blog post, “The six people you want to avoid in the wine business.”

One of his “six people to avoid” was “the Master Sommelier Working for a Corporation.” It was a good spoof in the best Hosemaster tradition, of course, and—having been the recipient of numerous Hosemaster barbs over the years–I appreciate his wit and am happy when he mentions me. Hosemaster, AKA Ron Washam, is a satirist, in the great twentieth-century tradition of Mort Sahl, Joseph Heller and even Stephen Colbert. But he is never mean-spirited.

Master Somms, like the rest of us, have to work somewhere. They may not choose to work in a restaurant; they might want different sorts of opportunities, and many go through a series of different jobs as their careers develop. So after you’ve invested all the expense and time of obtaining the coveted M.S., where are you gonna go?

Into the business world, as so many Master Sommeliers have done. As you can see if you browse through the membership page on the Court of Master Sommelier’s website,

http://www.mastersommeliers.org/pages.aspx/membership

some go to work for wineries, big and small. (And, yes, Master Somms work for my company, Jackson Family Wines, which by the way is not corporate, but family-owned.) Others work for distributors or in retail trade. Some consult; some are independent wine educators. The latest Master Somm to rock the business world is Ken Fredrickson, whose investment group just took over Brewer-Clifton.

In other words, Master Somms do all sorts of interesting things.

What’s wrong with a Master Somm working an honest day for honest pay? There are only 140 of them in all of North America, and 219 worldwide. With such limited numbers, these men and women are in high demand. They can essentially work anyplace they want. Actually, in going into the business world, they move beyond rarified sommelier circles into networks of on- and off-premise professionals and consumers—democratizing, as it were, the world of fine wine, which is as it should be.

I don’t think Hosemaster actually believes it’s “sad” for a Master Somm to work for a winery. After all, he’s a former sommelier himself and understands the terroir. But for anyone who does think along those lines, let me quote Hosemaster’s own words, on Charlie Olken’s blog, “[G]ood sommeliers…understand that their only job, their ONLY job, is to help assure that the customer has an enjoyable evening.” No matter where they work or what they do, good sommeliers do exactly that: they help customers enjoy their wine.


Kumbaya!

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I love this article by Karen MacNeil in the latest issue of The Tasting Panel on “Somms and Salespeople.”

I don’t think I would particularly have cared about the topic when I was a wine critic, but now that I work for Jackson Family Wines and have hung out with sales people (I’m what they aptly call a “ridealong”), the article resonated with me. For I’ve seen, up close and personal, how “the relationship between sommeliers and the reps who sell them wine…is often fraught with tension.”

As the somms whom Karen interviewed point out, they have quite a few “pet peeves” when it comes to salespeople. I wish, though, that Karen had asked salespeople what they think of somms! From my experiences, I’ve seen somms treat salespeople with haughtiness and even dismissiveness. “Rudely,” as my southern-born mother would have said.

We all work in a very small world, those of us in the California wine business. And I’ve always believed that there should be no room for negativity or animosity. I’ve seen bad attitudes from winemakers toward wine critics, from wine critics toward winemakers, from wine writers toward each other, from small wineries toward big wineries, and so on. I’ve tried to avoid such stuff. Why can’t we all get along?

Look, somms depend on salespeople for their business. And just because a sommelier is “more educated” (an arguable point) than a wine salesperson is no reason for them to take a superior attitude. Didn’t we all learn in kindergarten to get along with each other—to be nice and polite and treat others as we would have them treat us?

Reading the somm quotes in Karen’s article, I can sympathize with some of their peeves. Certainly, people shouldn’t be late for appointments if they can help it. And I can see why a busy somm would object to a cold call—somebody stopping by who didn’t even bother to make an appointment.

I can also see why some of the somms would complain about salespeople not knowing very much about the wines they’re selling! I don’t believe that’s a problem at Jackson Family Wines, because our sales force is highly trained. But, on the other hand, it’s probably impossible for a salesperson to know as much about wine in general as a sommelier, so I would hope that somms would temper their expectations. If I have a tip for salespeople, it’s to be sensitive to the somm you’re with. If you detect that they’re not really into a conversation about the terroir of the wine you’re selling, or its acidity and sugar level, then don’t go there.

In the end, I have great sympathy and empathy for salespeople. They have what is perhaps the toughest job in the wine business. They’re road warriors who spend half their lives in cars or on planes, schlepping from account to account even when they’re tired and not feeling so good. Selling is difficult; you have to have a certain calling for it, and also have a high tolerance for rejection. And you always have to keep that smile on your face—a rule that apparently doesn’t apply to somms in the sales interaction. (But somms do have to keep that smile on the dining room floor, where they may encounter rude, supercilious people. So I’d remind somms to think of their own experiences when they’re tempted to be haughty with a salesperson.)

To all the somms out there—and I love you all—I say, be nice to your salespeople. If you have a problem with one, explain it. Try to realize that, just like you, the salesperson has a job to do. We’re all in this together, so we might as well make life as pleasant as it can be for each other.


Learning from somms

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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

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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

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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!


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