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Can you “train” a palate?

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I picked up an older issue of Bon Appetit in which the “Starters” column (a sort of “Ask Bon Appetit anything you want” feature) has the following question from a reader: Dear BA, I often hear chefs on cooking shows…talking about a person’s palate…What exactly does that mean, and can I train my own palate?

The use of the verb “train” is strange here. I’m reminded of what I had to do when Gus first came to live with me. There was a lot of dog training involved: he was pretty well housebroken, but not entirely, and he had to learn—and respect—my voice commands, including “no,” “stop,” “sit,” “stay” and “come.” This training involved me—the dad—imposing my will upon Gus, the child/dog. It was a process of issue command—wait for result—impose result if necessary—repeat—and repeat—until the result was an obedient dog, which Gus is.

Does one “train” a chef’s or wine lover’s palate in the same way? (“Sit, palate. Give me your paw, palate.”) Bon Appetit’s answer person, Andrew Knowlton, defined a “great palate” for chefs in two ways: a more fundamental level in which a talented chef can identify the flaws in a dish and know instinctively how to correct them: perhaps by adding a pinch of salt or squeeze of lemon.

On a higher level, Andrew defined a great palate by the degree of “taste memory” the taster possesses. According to this approach, the only way to acquire an extensive taste memory is to taste a ton of food (and, for our purposes, wine) over a long time. That way, when you judge a food (or a wine) you compare it to the greatest similar food or wine you’ve ever had. This presumes, of course, that you remember that greatest food or wine, which is why it’s a function of memory.

Well, most of you reading my blog probably have tasted a lot of wine in your time, and you no doubt possess an extensive taste memory (kind of like having a lot of books in your library). Still, I’ll bet you wonder if you have a truly “great palate,” or just an ordinary one. Am I right? Sure I am. I think most of us doubt our palates from time to time, even though we might never care to admit it. I do admit it, and I did throughout my long career as a wine critic. I always did the best I could, honestly and diligently, but I knew that there were palates more acute than mine. There’s always a palate more acute than yours, just as there’s always someone better than you at (name it: basketball, math, making an omelet, dancing, sodoku).

There’s a meme in this business that the best palates belong to those professionals who have undergone some sort of formal training: sommeliers and Masters of Wine. Winemakers, too, are often known as great tasters. I’ve known quite a few great palates in my time. One was (and still is) the longtime winemaker at Jordan, Rob Davis, whom I once saw correctly identify, blind, twelve Cabernet Sauvignons concerning their origin, Napa Valley or Alexander Valley. That’s pretty good.

I once knew quite well a person who was studying for his MW. He’d been at it for years, and was therefore completely saturated in that hard-nosed, analytical approach. When he tasted a wine, blind, he’d go into a sort of mesmerized concentration: eyes scrunched shut, brow wrinkled in thoughtful meditation. Swirling and chewing the wine, he’d begin his written analysis, slowly and methodically working through all the wine’s parameters—flavors, acidity, complexity and so on—until he felt he had a good handle on it. (Sadly, this person never did get his MW, and he eventually dropped out of the program.) Of course, the ultimate expression of this approach—the Gold Medal at the Tasting Olympics, as it were—would be to taste a wine double blind and announce that it is, say, a young Spanish Verdejo. Not Sauvignon Blanc, not Albariño, not Gruner Veltliner. This is the taster’s wet dream: to nail it in public. Polite applause (and perhaps envy) from the crowd—the taster’s reputation is enhanced—the story will go around the wine world via social media in no time.

Yes, that is one definition of a “great palate.” But you have to ask yourself, what’s the point of it all? You take years and years, do all that studying, all the hard work that goes into it, and for what?—so that you can nail Verdejo at a blind tasting? I’ve always said that the kind of tasting skills one develops depends on one’s job. Wine critics, of the kind I was and most of the well-known print critics are, do not need that particular skill. In fact, it may be detrimental to them doing their jobs well. Aspiring MWs and MSs do need it, for one reason only: to pass their respective examinations, so that they can get their credentials. Afterwards, such freakish analytical skills become less and less necessary, as the graduates find themselves careers in which other skills—business, teamworking, networking, accounting, organizing, writing, teaching, food pairing—take center stage. In fact, from the point of view of a consumer (which we all are), what skills do we want to see in the person who’s making buying recommendations to us? Personally, I couldn’t care less if my somm or critic can nail Verdejo blind. But I do want her to know her wines, tell me stories, answer my questions, impartially help me make my decision, and maybe even be able to have a good conversation about something besides wine.


Older wine in restaurants? Not worth the risk

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Somm Journal executive editor David Gadd asks the pertinent question of what to do when you let a sommelier hand-sell you a glass of older wine, and when you taste it, it’s over the hill.

I say the question is pertinent, because we see this happening with greater frequency nowadays, what with these older vintages, especially of more obscure wines and regions, being readily available at affordable prices, and somms being notoriously into “cool”, offbeat wines that can be downright strange to more traditional tastes. The general public, which includes many professionals in the wine industry, still is mesmerized by older wines; even though many of us understand that the life-curve of most wines is short, and that, from the moment they are bottled they begin to die, the possibility of finding some transmogrified old treasure still haunts us, and is probably responsible for more money being spent on moribund wine than is generally acknowledged.

Such at any rate was evidently the case with David Gadd, who spent $25 each on two “fossils” that were “heavily oxidized” and finished “flat [and] funereal.”

That does not sound like a pleasant gastronomic experience!

I had a very similar time once in one of Carmel’s top restaurants, when I was persuaded by a somm (complete with silver tastevin around his neck) to invest in a 12-year old Spanish Albariño he guaranteed would be fantastic with my scallops sautéed in butter. The wine was completely dead and tasted frankly awful.

The reason these anecdotes, mine and David’s, matter is not because of their particulars, but because they raise questions of current interest. Today’s diner of fine food and wines is confronted with a looming question: whether to stick with what he or she knows and likes, which is usually Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon or one of the other major varieties, in a fresh and relatively young wine; or to go the route of adventure, which usually means an obscure variety, from a lesser-known country or region, and moreover, may—depending on the restaurant and sommelier—have acquired some bottle age, although it may still not cost much more than a younger bottling. One might be tempted to go the second route, in which case there are two possible ways of preventing catastrophe: asking for a free tasting sample of the wine before officially ordering it, or reaching an understanding with the server that, should you not care for the wine, you will have an unconditional money-back guarantee. Both of these are more or less standard practices in good restaurants, but both come with a certain level of risk: you, the diner, are out on the town for fun, and you don’t suddenly want to find yourself plunged into drama with a sommelier or server, particularly when the playlet is likely to be overheard by strangers at neighboring tables (not to mention potentially stressing your dining companions). The first alternative, asking for a free tasting sample, is less fraught with danger, but also less likely: a restaurant is not likely to offer a tasting sample of older wines (although the advent of the Coravin is making that more likely).

The diner, then, finds himself on the horns of a dilemma. We don’t want to be conservative and stuffy and trod only the well-worn paths of least resistance. We want to be open to surprise and delight, ends that cannot be achieved unless we’re willing to take risks. But the dining room floor is often not the best place to take those risks. As a former critic, I have come to the conclusion that older wines are generally more apt to disappoint than to please, which is why, except under strict circumstances, I wouldn’t take the chance, but would stick to young and fresh. There are exceptions, of course: if there’s a wine and winery you’re familiar with, and know has a good track record for aging, then go for it. (For example, I wouldn’t have any problem ordering a 12-year old Corison Kronos.) But old dry Loire whites, which is what caught David Gadd off-guard? Nope.


A great sushi meal in S.F., and some thoughts about somms

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Had a fantastic lunch at Pabu Izakaya, Michael Mina’s sushi restaurant at 101 California in the FiDi. My goodness, I love sushi practically more than any other food but it can be pretty generic. In this case, it was outstanding. We had a bunch of different things off the menu and ate it family style and everything was so fresh and delicious, I couldn’t help stuffing myself, down to the last piece of nigiri. Incidentally, their ahi tuna poke, served on a crispy wonton, is my desert island food. OMG, so good, and the perfect starter.

One of my fellow diners was Scott Christopher, from the House of Prime Rib, up on Van Ness, which brought back great memories. I haven’t eaten there for some time, but well remember the cart with the standing rib roast and the Yorkshire pudding, not to mention an excellent wine list. So I’m going to have to get back there, and soon. You’re never too old for that beef fix! And retro is back, as a new generation discovers just why great restaurants like the HOPR have endured through decades of wars and earthquakes and tumultuous times and emerged triumphant.

My fellow diners, including Scott, all seemed to be in their twenties and thirties, wine people, and it’s so interesting to chat with them and find out what’s on their minds. One of the questions I ask restaurant people is, “What’s hot these days?” and that always stimulates a good conversation. A topic that arises with frequency is that a restaurant can’t just have a wine (or beer, or spirits) list that contains stuff the proprietor or beverage manager or sommelier likes. It has to offer customers things they like! This would seem obvious, from a service and commercial point of view, but it isn’t always. For example, I like telling the story of the Sonoma County restaurateur who told me about another restaurant, someplace around Petaluma, that didn’t have any Chardonnay on the wine list. The reason: The somm didn’t like Chardonnay! Anyhow, the restaurateur who told me about this added that he’d heard about it from a diner, who came to his restaurant and told him she’d never go back to the no-Chardonnay restaurant again, because she likes Chardonnay, so why would she? Well, of course, that no-Chardonnay sommelier certainly didn’t do his restaurant any good. He tried to impose his own tastes on his customers. It’s all well and good for a somm to have maybe 20% of the wine list be “interesting” stuff he or she is enamored of. But the other 80% should be stuff that real customers want! The ideal somm, it seems to me, plays the role of a bridge between his tastes and those of his customers. It’s a delicate balancing act. I’ve dined in fine restaurants where the somm tried to push bizarre stuff on me that, frankly, might have been interesting by itself but was awful with the food it was paired with. We need to get past that era, which, hopefully, is ending. When somms respect wine more than they respect their customers, something is seriously askew.

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While I am affiliated with Jackson Family Wines, the postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the postings, strategies or opinions of Jackson Family Wines.


Scores, stores and wineries: a new analysis

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Every day, I get blast email advertisements from wineries or wine stores touting the latest 90-plus point score from Suckling, Parker, Vinous or some other esteemed critic. Here’s an example that came in on Saturday: I’m reproducing everything except the actual winery/wine.

_____ Winery’s ____ Napa Red Wine 2013 Rated 92JS.

Notice how the “92JS” is printed in the same font type and size as the name of the winery and wine. That assigns them equal importance; the rating and critic are virtually part of the brand. Later in the ad, they have the full “James Suckling Review” followed by a full “Wine Spectator Review” [of 90 points]. This is followed by the winery’s own “Wine Tasting Notes,” which by and large echo Spectator’s and Suckling’s descriptions.

Built along similar lines was a recent email ad for a certain Brunello: The headline was “2011 ____ Brunello di Montalcino DOCG”; immediately beneath is (in slightly smaller point size), “94 Points Vinous / Antonio Galloni.”

We can see that, in these headline and sub-heads, through physical proximity on the page or screen, the ads’ creators have linked the name of the winery and the wine to the name of the famous critic and his point score. One of the central tenets of advertising is to get the most important part of the message across immediately and strongly. (This is why so many T.V. commercials begin with the advertiser’s name—you hear and see it before you can change the channel or click the “mute” button.) In like fashion, most of us will quickly read a headline (even if we don’t want to) before skipping the rest of the ad. The headline thus stays in the brain: “Winery” “Wine Critic” “90-plus point score.” That’s really all the winery or wine store wants you to retain. They don’t expect you to read the entire ad, or to immediately buy the wine based on the headline. They do expect that the “Winery” “Wine Critic” “90-plus point score” information will stay embedded in your brain cells, which will make you more likely to buy the wine the next time you’re looking for something, or at least have a favorable view of it.

This reliance of wineries and wine stores on famous critics’ reviews and scores is as strong as ever. There has been a well-publicized revolt against it by sommeliers and bloggers, but their resistance has all the power of a wet noodle. You might as well thrash against the storm; it does no good. The dominance of the famous wine critic is so ensconced in this country (and throughout large parts of Asia) that it shows no signs of being undermined anytime soon. You can regret it; you can rant against it; you can list all the reasons why it’s unhealthy, but you can’t change the facts.

Wineries are complicit in this phenomenon; they are co-dependents in this 12-Step addiction to critics. Wineries, of course, live and die by the same sword: A bad review is not helpful, but wineries will never publish a bad review. They assume (rightly) that bad reviews will quickly be swept away by the never-ending tsunami of information swamping consumers.

Which brings us back to 90-point scores. They’re everywhere. You can call it score inflation, you can argue that winemaking quality is higher, or that vintages are better, but for whatever reason, 90-plus points is more common than ever. Ninety is the new 87. Wineries love a score of 90, but I’ve heard that sometimes they’re disappointed they didn’t get 93, 94 or higher. Even 95 points has been lessened by its ubiquity.

Hosemaster lampooned this, likening 100-point scores to Oprah Winfrey giving out cars to the studio audience on her T.V. show. (“You get a car! And you get a car! And you get a car! And YOU get a car! Everybody gets a car!”) Why does this sort of thing happen? Enquiring minds want to know. In legalese, one must ask, “Cui bono?”—Who benefits? In Oprah’s case, she’s not paying for the cars herself; they’re provided by the manufacturers, who presumably take a tax writeoff. It’s a win-win-win situation for Oprah, the automakers and the audience.

Cui bono when it comes to high scores? The wineries, of course, and the wine stores that sell their wines (and put together the email blast advertisements). And what of the critics?

Step into the tall weeds with me, reader. A wine critic who gives a wine a high score gets something no money can buy: exposure. His name goes out on all those email blast advertisements (and other forms of marketing). That name is seen by tens of thousands of people, thereby making the famous wine critic more famous than ever. Just as the wine is linked to the critic in the headline, the critic’s name is linked to the 90-plus wine; both are meta-branded. (It’s the same thing as when politicians running for public office vie for the endorsement of famous Hollywood stars, rock stars and sports figures: the halo effect of fame and glamor by association.) There therefore is motive on the part of critics to amplify their point scores.

But motive alone does not prove a case nor make anyone guilty. We cannot impute venality to this current rash of high scores; we can merely take note of it. Notice also that the high scores are coming from older critics. Palates do, in fact, change over the years. Perhaps there’s something about a mature palate that is easier to please than a beginner’s palate. Perhaps older critics aren’t as angry, fussy or nit-picky about wine as younger ones; or as ambitious. They’re more apt to look for sheer pleasure and less apt to look for the slightest perceived imperfection. With age comes mellowness; mellowness is more likely to smile upon the world than to criticize it.

Anyhow, it is passing strange to see how intertwined the worlds of wineries, wine stores and wine critics have become. Like triple stars caught in each others’ orbits, they gyre and gimble in the wabe, in a weird but strangely fascinating pas de trois that, for the moment at least, shows no signs of abating.


I reply to a somm friend

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Ian Burrows is a great sommelier whom I first met at a Jackson Family Wines event I was speaking at. He was then working at one of San Francisco’s hottest restaurants, Atelier Crenn, in the Marina District. I was never fortunate enough to dine there, because the Marina is really a schlep from Oakland. I liked Ian a lot when we met, and he turned out to be a good correspondent, on both Facebook and my blog. So when he wrote me a fairly long comment, I took it seriously, and want to respond in kind.

Ian had read my post from a few days ago, in which I described how, in choosing wines for my tastings, I rely on—among other factors—the reviews of certain top critics. Ian wrote:

I read your article on choosing sparkling for a comparative tasting, and I have to ask, why on earth would you ever base your choices on other critics scores?

I have never understood the fascination of taking such an incredibly narrow focus on deciding which wines (or automobiles or eye-liner for that matter) are the best value, most accessible, most delicious or whatever from a handful of very influential reviewers.

Why not just send out a bunch of random e-mails to your wine buddies? Ask “what wines in XYZ category should I represent in this tasting?”…. Surely, if you spread it across continents and demographics you’d get a more accurate picture.

I have the utmost respect for what you did at WE (although I still do not completely understand it) and I have even greater respect for what you do at JFE but you gotta let go of what is, quite frankly, a waste of time….. “Wine reviews”.

Reviews – I am pretty sure they will be gone in five years.

You have a better deal being the PR front man at JFE than a reviewer because at least you can focus squarely on industry trends/changes, comment and review issues that directly and indirectly affect the quality and style of wine, not simply assign points and hope that readers respond by supporting your tastes and/or reviews.

It’s perhaps a face to face conversation for another time, but one that I know will be vibrant and respectful

I replied personally to Ian, but I want to expand on that here (and I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t have the utmost respect for him). My main points were, (1) I am emphatically not “the PR front man” at Jackson Family Wines! I don’t know how that rumor got started. In fact, my job has nothing to do with PR (although I suppose you could say that everything ultimately touches on public relations).

More to the point, I defend my use of other critics’ scores this way: When you’re assembling a lineup of wines for a comparative tasting, you have to use some kind of parameter. Since you can’t taste everything that theoretically falls within the scope of your tasting, you necessarily must limit the number of entries. Let me ask, Readers, how you would do it?

Let’s say, for instance, that I want to do a tasting of the Cabernet Sauvignons of Rutherford. There are at least 39 wineries in Rutherford, according to the web page of the Rutherford Dust Society. Many of them, maybe the majority, produce more than one SKU of Cabernet Sauvignon or a Bordeaux blend. Let’s say there are 100 different SKUs. That’s too many to include in a tasting, so you have to whittle down the number.

You could do this in any number of ways: Wines from west of Highway 29 on the Rutherford Bench, wines from the Mayacamas Mountains, wines from east of Highway 29 but west of the Silverado Trail, wines from east of the Silverado Trail, wines from way up in the Vacas, wines from south Rutherford, from north Rutherford, 100% Cabs, blends, wines above $75, wines below $30, and so on and so forth. Any of those would make sense, I suppose. But so does the kind of crowd-sourcing I do when I choose wines based on my own experiences, compounded by their critical scores. When Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator, Vinous, Wine Enthusiast, Wines & Vines, Wine & Food, and so on are all giving a wine high scores, that’s a pretty good indication it’s a very good wine. And those are the kinds of wines I want to include in my tastings, especially when we’re including Jackson Family Wines in the lineup. I want to see how JFW wines stand up to the most critically acclaimed wines. (And I hope I won’t be accused of wearing a PR hat when I tell you, they do very well.)

Surely Ian isn’t entirely serious when he suggests sending random emails to my “wine buddies” soliciting their views. I have about 4,000 Facebook friends and 6,500 Twitter followers. Not all of them claim to be wine experts, and frankly, I don’t know most of them, so their opinion is not of the greatest help to me. If I was doing something on popular drinking habits or trends or wine and food pairing, I might, and frequently do, ask my friends and followers, but not for assembling a blind tasting of ultrapremium wines.

Now, Ian (and a generation of young somms) may not care about the major critics—I understand that–but I do. Maybe it’s a generational thing. I respect what James Laube, Robert Parker and the others do. I know how hard the work is…what the pressures are…I know also that when you’ve tasted wine seriously for a good many years you really do develop a master palate. I don’t think there’s anything crooked or unseemly about what they do (and what I used to do). These are men and women of the highest integrity and their opinions should matter.

Nor do I think wine reviewing is “a waste of time” that will be gone in five years. I’ve frequently said on my blog that wine reviewing will always be with us, because as long as there are a zillion wines on the market, consumers are going to seek guidance. I’ve said that this guidance can come from many different sources, including a local and trusted merchant, but merchants—let’s face it—may have a motive to recommend a wine they carry, which makes them less than completely objective. A wine critic of the caliber of a Parker, Laube, Galloni, etc. has no ulterior motive. He or she doesn’t care about the advertising his publication may or may not solicit from wineries—that’s the famous “firewall” between editorial and advertising, and it’s real. Nor does the critic care whether or not someone buys something. So, unless you’re prepared to charge the critics with something untoward—and prove it—you really have no leg to stand on when it comes to criticizing them or questioning their sincerity or ability.

I will concede that every critic has his subjective preferences. Wine Spectator, in my opinion, gives too much attention to Marcassin. The San Francisco Chronicle seems to have a thing for Morgan Twain-Peterson and Bedrock. When I was at Wine Enthusiast I certainly gave a lot of love to Bob Cabral and Williams Selyem. But there’s nothing nefarious about any of this: critics are only human, and we do form attachments, to winemakers, wines and particular styles of wine.

So, my friend Ian, this is my respectful reply. I’d love to get together, anytime you’re free, to chat about this; and maybe I can explain what I did at Wine Enthusiast.

Have a great weekend!


Too many chefs? A culinary academy closure raises questions

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It’s a real shockeroo that the Culinary Academy in San Francisco is closing. Its graduates include Ron Siegel, now of Michael Mina but I remember dining at the old Charles Nob Hill restaurant, which he eventually left to go to Masa’s. Talk about a resumé!

There are two outposts of the culinary arts in the food-obsessed Bay Area: The Culinary Academy [also known as Le Cordon Blue] and the Culinary Institute of America, in Saint Helena. To have one of them shut down in the midst of one of the greatest restaurant booms in memory is amazing. The official reason for the Culinary Academy’s closure is high food and facility costs,” but a major financial problem was “a $40 million settlement in 2011 of a class-action lawsuit by students who claimed the school inflated graduation and job placement rates.”

According to that settlement, 8,500 students who attended the Academy between 2003 and 2008 were eligible for tuition rebates, based on the notion that “they were told a culinary degree from Le Cordon Bleu would allow them to become chefs, but that many students who graduate are unable to obtain that position.”

One hardly knows where to start in the commentary. During the first 15 years of this new century, being a chef was one of the hottest careers in America—at least, the America of the coasts, and in the urban and rapidly urbanizing centers of the country, where despite the Great Recession people had good jobs and were developing the discretionary-income behaviors of upping their food game and looking for great local restaurants in which to dine. I’m sure that many applicants to the Culinary Academy dreamt of being the next Ron Siegel, and why not? It’s a good dream.

The “chefs are hot” movement was rivaled, in our food-and-wine world, only by the “somms are hot movement,” which itself was exceeded by the “mixologists are hot” movement. Still, there seems to be enough room in our hedonistic culture for chefs, somms and mixologists to co-exist, with plenty of jobs for all.

What, then, are we to make of the Culinary Academy’s closure? I will not weigh in on the merits of the 2011 lawsuit, but clearly, even graduates of an esteemed cooking school in San Francisco found it hard to obtain the sort of work they were expecting; some of them faced “in excess of $100,000” in student loans, hardly an amount a young line chef, even if she could get a job, would be able to repay for many, many years.

I remember when I moved to San Francisco, everybody wanted to be an M.B.A. That was the hot job of the first Reagan administration. Of course, all those newly-minted MBAs didn’t get rich. That degree, too, was over-hyped and over-sold. I frequently have the same feeling about sommeliers today. There are so many ways to get certified, whatever that means, that I sometimes think, pace Warhol, that in the future, everybody will be a sommelier for 15 minutes.

But an oversupply of chefs? What else are we to make of the Culinary Academy’s closure? Clearly there are two things going on: (1) the media’s obsession with these sexy careers, and (2) the corresponding reality that there are not enough jobs for all the graduates of the nation’s cooking schools.

I believe in dreams. I made my career as a wine writer based on my dream. But that was then; this is now, and I don’t know that the dream of being a chef is based on reality. There comes a time when a career gets so popular that too many people pursue it; being a wine writer is in a similar plight today. I am second to no one in the esteem in which I hold chefs. They have been instrumental in our evolution as a culture. If I had a kid who dreamed of being a chef and asked for my advice, I’d be torn. Follow your dream? Or forget about it because the competition is so intense and the chance of success is diminishing. I honestly don’t know what advice I would give.


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