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Thoughts on those sommelier lunches

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Today I am speaker, or host, at a buyer’s lunch for Jackson Family Wines. The venue is Farmshop, a restaurant in the tony Marin County town of Larkspur. I’ve never eaten there, but if you’re a wine-and-food geek in the Bay Area, you’ve certainly heard of it. Farmshop earned a coveted spot on the 2015 Top 100 restaurant list compiled annually by the San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic, Michael Bauer. Our lunch menu was specially created by Chef Jason Purcell to pair with seven JFW wines. Our guests—22 and counting—are important wine buyers in the Bay Area.

But that’s not what I want to talk about. Instead, I want to expand the conversation to the topic of these buyer lunches and dinners. These are important ways for wineries to connect with people who might buy their wines, and not just any people: high-end on- and off-premise accounts that will showcase the winery’s wines the way they hope to be be portrayed.

Being present on the shelf of a good wine shop and, even more, on the wine list of a top restaurant is more vital than ever. The Holy Grail for wineries, of course, is direct-to-consumer, but that’s a long, hard road, and the thinking among the smart set is that being on a wine list represents a shortcut, or perhaps stimulant is a better word, to DTC. I’m not sure exactly if that’s true, the assumption, I suppose, being that if a customer buys your off the wine list and falls in love with you, he’ll seek you out in the future by joining your wine club or ordering your wine from your website. That is hopeful, but not proven. But if your production is small enough—and many of the wines I’ll be showing tomorrow are–you can afford to forgo DTC if enough retail accounts buy you.

Wineries have different personnel they can choose to represent them at such venues, which combine entertainment and serious eating with the educational analyses of the wines. Obviously, there’s the winery owner and/or winemaker, who often but not always is the same person. This is a winery’s best bet for putting forth a personality who can talk about the wines being presented, as well as using herself as a selling point; having a “face of the winery” is very important for branding, although not all winemakers and/or owners like being put in that position, and some refuse to do it. But it’s necessary these days, and not a bad place to be, since your audience arrives excited and expecting to like you. All you have to do is live up to their expectations. And who doesn’t like to be liked?

The winemaker or owner isn’t always available, of course. So who else does the winery send to represent them? Well, it’s often someone from sales, marketing or P.R. who is affiliated with the winery in some way, and can speak credibly about the wines. You need a credible presence, because buyers don’t want to feel jerked around by someone who doesn’t have credibility and is only trying to sell stuff–timeshares or Tupperware or whatever.

The hope on every winery’s part, at every trade or consumer event, is to have someone of unimpeachable credibility represent them. This isn’t exactly a new development—winetasting events at restaurants are as old as the hills. But it’s become more polished in recent years, especially with the advent of the “new sommeliers,” people with advanced knowledge of, not only wine, but culinary affairs. They don’t want to go to a lunch just anywhere, and indeed, if the restaurant doesn’t spark their interest, they’ll pass on by the event. Somms have become more pampered than they were in the past—not passing judgment on that, just saying—and so it takes more than it used to to coax them out and make them happy.


Moving away from “the wine list”

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Lucy Shaw’s interview with Christopher Cooper, reported in the drinks business, contains some wise and useful insights, especially Cooper’s contention that sommeliers “need to work harder, take more risks and open their eyes to the bigger world of drinks, taking in beer, cider, cocktails and spirits.” Declaring the traditional wine list “dead—boring…wine bibles [that] are crap,” he even charges that customers “are being forced into buying wine rather than other drinks in restaurants as it’s profitable.”

Wow, lots to break down here. It’s true that restaurants make a lot of money selling wine, although I don’t know if wine is more profitable than beer and cocktails—perhaps someone can enlighten me.

Since I’m a wine guy, representing wineries, I do wonder if this suggestion—that restaurants open their wine lists more or less equally to beer and spirits—will cut down on wine sales. This would be a serious impediment to wineries, especially in this day and age when on-premise is so important to them. But I don’t think so. Here’s why.

To begin with, the gigantic wine list—the size of the Manhattan telephone directory—has clearly had its fifteen minutes of fame. It won’t disappear overnight, but I assume and hope than eventually it will be seen for what it is: a bloated appeal to snobbery. Diners don’t even want such mammoth wine lists anymore; they want something with, maybe, 30 wines and an attractive by the glass selection, creatively chosen, moderately priced and—this is key—curated by someone who knows and loves wine, and doesn’t just throw the Big Names on there for the hell of it.

So restaurants shouldn’t just add beer and spirits to already-overweight wine lists, they should shorten their wine lists. Who gets to stay on such coveted real estate? Ahh, glad you asked. It’s the wineries that offer the most bang for the buck.

The real action these days isn’t in the critical scores or the latest magazine cover stories, it’s on the sales turf. Everybody—Bill Harlan to Fred Frenzia—is out there thinking of how to stay relevant. Nobody really understands the rules because frankly, my dears, there aren’t any, or very many, and such rules as there are tend to get broken quickly as the landscape undergoes constant mega-change. There’s a lot of bull out there that masquerades as expertise when in reality it’s just another service being pitched. The details differ at each price scale, but basically, the question for vintners is: Am I still going to be able to sell this stuff five, ten, twenty, a hundred years from now?

This is a worthy question for a vintner to ask—indeed, the only worthy one. I have a feeling that wineries that can prove to the world that they are in this for the long haul, will find themselves a leg up, because having a real long-range plan means they’re performing at the top of their game. Nobody wants overnight successes, built on some phony formula, that won’t exist tomorrow. We want to support wineries that have been doing a good job for a long time and haven’t gotten complacent.

And that gets us back to wine lists, which, according to the Cooper theory of reality, should actually be called “wine, beer and spirits lists.” It’s a good idea that will upset the wine industry temporarily, but in the long run will be good for consumers, and that’s what it’s all about.


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.


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