Hasn’t the day of the bloated wine list come, and gone?
How many wines do diners need to “peruse” on a list anyway? Obviously, there’s no correct answer, so I can only speak for myself. I, personally, like a list with perhaps 50 or 60 choices. It’s manageable; you actually have the time and mental energy to think about each wine, to talk about choices with your dining companions and have an intelligent conversation with your server or sommelier.
There’s another thing about a short wine list I like, and that’s that when you see a good one, you can tell it’s been curated intelligently. Somebody in the restaurant loved that wine list enough to really think carefully about what wines to include. That person truly considered chef’s food, diners’ habits and budgets, and the restaurant’s overall concept. That is so much different from a list whose creator simply threw everything on there he could, based on big names and in the hope of winning awards like the one The World of Fine Wine (WOFW) recently published.
Would you be more tempted to dine at, say, Robuchon du Dome, in Lisbon (one of WOFW’s winners) if you knew they have 12,700 wines on the list? I wouldn’t, nor would I be enamored of having to wade through all 24 pages of the list at Bobby Flay’s Atlantic City restaurant, Bobby Flay Steak—so extensive that, like an encyclopedia, it has a table of contents.
How many Bordeaux, Cabernets, Rhônes, Pinot Noirs, Barolos and Riojas do you need, just to have a decent wine to drink with steak?
Once upon a time, these massive wine lists had a purpose. They announced that the American restaurant had come of age, in terms of wine sophistication. Baby Boomers wanted more variation on lists than had been the case in the 1960s and even into the 1970s, and so restaurants gave them more variation…and more variation…and more and more and more. Then came the era of the wine list award. The result was that many wine lists became—not useful guides for diners—but trophies, in the literal sense: the restaurant could win a plaque, then hang it in their lobby.
But those days are waning. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Michael Bauer, the senior wine critic in California newspapers, recently wrote, “Wine lists have also become more compact,” an evolution paralleled by a similar shortening of menus themselves: “shorter, more focused menus.”
Coravin, the wine closure and accessories company, wrote about this recently on their blog, quoting a somm who praised “smaller, more focused wine programs that are structured and presented in an approachable fashion for the consumer to extract the most pertinent information necessary”.
These twin developments–shorter menus, shorter wine lists–aren’t merely about helping restaurants save money. They’re due also to a shift in the customers’ thinking, and it’s not just because of Twitter and the 140-character brain. We have only so much time and energy in our lives; we want to devote our consciousness to important things, not minutiae. We also recognize bloat when we see it. What is more sorry than sitting down in a nice restaurant, with nice companions, only to have to trudge through a phonebook-sized wine list? Half the people at the table don’t care all that much anyway; they just want something good. So you inevitably get the “expert” studying the list, alienated from his companions, while the others, in the back of their minds, are thinking, “OMG, just pick something and get it over with.”
Here in Oakland, which is such hotbed of restaurant activity, we’re definitely seeing a move away from bloated wine lists. Oakland is the land of the pop-up restaurant, food trucks, shared kitchens, virtual restaurants, and ethnic fare from all over the world. The hot Wood Tavern, in the Rockridge District, exemplifies this new thinking about wine lists. Theirs is a bit on the longish side (about 65 selections), but it reads short and snappy, shows bottles from all over the world, both well-known and obscure, and is priced affordably. Similar in size is Flora’s wine list, easy to take in at a glance, but so well-crafted and thoughtful. Shakewell’s list is even more curated, a mere 27 bottles (not including Sherry), but really, it is positively Mondrian-esque in its spare, one might almost say spartan elegance. This is the direction I believe restaurants are headed. It’s not only easier on the diner, it means the list is more creative, and the restaurant can save money on inventory, can order more nimbly in order to take advantage of deals, and can keep prices lower. Nothing wrong with that.
I’d like to wish everyone a happy, healthy New Year. 2015 was kind of weird for me in some respects, with lots of twists and turns—but then, life always provides the unexpected, doesn’t it? The thing I’m learning, or trying to, is that I usually land on my feet, and that, no matter what happens, it’s all good.
Well, it’s not always all good, obviously. But in looking back over what is turning into my long life, I can see how almost every time something happened to me that I thought was a disaster, it actually turned out to be good. “Every cloud has a silver lining,” they say. The challenge is to see that silvery glow when the cloud is enveloping you in darkness. Not always easy—that’s where faith comes into play. I don’t mean blind, mindless faith, but a faith based on reason: something along the lines of, “Hey, this has always worked out for me in the past, so why shouldn’t I believe it’ll work out in the future?”
I’m looking forward to more great projects in 2016 working for my wonderful employer, Jackson Family Wines. It was nearly two years ago that I quit my job as the Famous Wine Critic and went to JFW. Lots of people were shocked that I would voluntarily give up such a hard-earned, coveted position. But I was ready for something else, and I also thought it’s only fair to move aside and let a newer generation have the fun of being a Famous Wine Critic. I’m glad I made that decision.
I’d also like to thank my readers for continuing to check me out every morning. The content of this blog changed when I made my job transition, but I still try to keep it interesting and timely. To some extent, my profile has gone down, which I anticipated and totally understand. But that’s good; things have quieted down in the Comments section, and on social media like Twitter, where for some reason some people got angry enough to write stupid things about me when they should have been living their lives. It’s nice to have those head-butting days behind me.
So have a great New Year’s Eve. Party hearty, if that’s your thing, but party safely, and please, don’t drink and drive! See you in 2016!
There’s been much analytical writing lately about the mental, psychological, intellectual and emotional aspects of wine, such as this think piece in Decanter, in which Andrew Jefford ruminates on the concept of wine “as a dream.” He writes of the way wine “commands our emotions” and of its “cultural depth,” referring to historical effluvia well-known to most wine writers, such as Napoleon’s love of Chambertin. As an example of this “cultural depth,” he claims, justifiably, that one cannot drink Stag’s Leap Cabernet without thinking of the Judgment of Paris. Certainly, that is true for me.
(Interestingly, Jefford puts more emphasis on wine’s alcoholic content than I would. Surely, getting buzzed, in precisely the way that wine stimulates the brain and spirit, contributes to the human capacity to experience emotion. Yet non-alcoholic consumables, such as movies and athletic contests, also stir up our emotions, so the presence of alcohol doesn’t seem to be necessary to make us feel strongly.)
Anyhow, I agree with Jefford’s line of thinking and have written about it frequently, suggesting that wine’s emotive and associative force—and not its objective hedonistic content—is the reason why people are willing to spend so much money on certain bottles. But the fact that this topic, of wine’s subjective and cultural bases, has arisen so much in recent months and years begs the questions, Why? And why now?
It used to be that the superior price of Haut-Brion, for example, was explained as a function of its superior quality. The First Growths cost twice as much as the Seconds because they were twice as good. All the experts said so; everyone believed it, because we lived in an age of expertise that applied to everything from art and economics to religion, governance and wine. People did not question the expertise of the experts, or their right to proclaim their views with rigid certainty. You might not particularly care about those views; but you, as a non-expert, were not free to disagree with them. Or, to be precise, you could, but at the risk of sounding like an idiot.
In retrospect we can see that this Age of Expertise was a minor chord in a larger symphony of hierarchical ranking, in which what was was would be. God reigned supreme over the Universe. The Kings and Queens who ruled empires were second in order, their rule “divine” and thus unassailable. Below the Kings and Queens were the Princes of the Church, Generals of the Armies and Admirals of the Navies, and so on and on, down through the pecking orders, in which peons and slaves occupied the lowest rung. These latter had no views, or none at any rate worth considering. This mechanistic view of the world and its inhabitants was reflected supremely in Newton’s mechanics.
We know what happened next: with the advent of Einstein, relativity, the Internet and social media, the old order has more or less totally collapsed. Authority means little these days, in an age when the autonomy of the individual, coupled with that anonymity of autonomous individuals called crowd sourcing, is promoted above all else. In wine, this disintegration of authority leaves the inheritors and defenders of the new order a challenging task: to explain the hierarchies of the old order. How did some wines get to be so much more famous and expensive than others? Proponents of the new order, who generally do not have the ability to taste wine widely, tend to resort to a radical explanation: that the old order was wrong. They say that when their grandparents drank Haut-Brion or Chambertin, the wine’s “cultural depth” actually became “freighted” (Jefford’s word, and not a flattering one) with a dream-weight-anchor that utterly prevented Grandpa from experiencing Haut-Brion for what it was, as opposed to the “dream” his brain conjured it to be. In Jefford’s words, “the dream modifies our reaction to the taste of the wine.”
That’s pretty radical. We wouldn’t allow someone who was racially biased to sit on a jury. We rightfully recoil when a Supreme Court Justice seems to let religious beliefs interfere with a “justice is blind” interpretation of the law. We don’t like it when news “anchors” let their politics blatantly color their reporting. So why is it that we trust wine “authorities” who speak from a dream-world?
This, at any rate, is how proponents of the new order think; and it explains why these arguments of the subjectivity and emotive power of wine are so frequent nowadays. If this tendency towards relativism in wine—an undermining of authority, a calling-into-question of the very notion of quality—continues, the world of wine will find itself in a very peculiar place that has no precedent in recorded history, in which wine always has existed within a hierarchy more or less agreed upon by everyone.
Which is why I don’t believe this worst-case scenario will happen. Human nature doesn’t change, despite fantastic advances in science. We are still the same people our distant ancestors were. Today’s wars and preoccupations mirror yesterday’s; only the particulars have changed; not much else. In wine, the hierarchies of authority (French classification systems, Famous Critic point scores) are under assault, but I don’t believe they’ll fail. These cultural re-assemblings occur from time to time; the rise, in fact, of Bordeaux to the summit of the hierarchy in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries was precisely a reassembling of a prior order, more chaotic but for all its disorder, more real. The particulars today change; the underlying reality—that hierarchies always will emerge, official and unofficial, yet understood by all—remains the same. To resist them is to form the stuff of future hierarchies.
Republicans and Democrats alike take campaign contributions from liquor wholesalers, as you can see from this data compiled by The Center for Responsive Politics, but perhaps the poster child for alcohol distribution companies is the Republican Senator from Texas, John Cornyn, who heads CRP’s list.
Our system of wholesalers and distributors is, of course, an anachronistic relic of the Repeal of Prohibition. As Tom Wark cogently pointed out last week in his blog, the original reasons for creating this “third leg” between producers and buyers might have seemed logical in the 1930s, but today, the system has become a “self-serving…monopoly” that “provide[s] the means for wholesaler coercion of producers and retailers.” The effect of this, as we all know, is that smaller wineries too often find themselves shut out of distribution channels, forcing them to try to sell their products directly to stores, restaurants and individuals. DTC is in fact the Holy Grail for wineries for the simple fact that the three-tiered system so ignobly makes fair distribution impossible. Wineries, especially small family ones, find themselves thwarted at every turn by a wholesaler industry that desperately wants to keep its monopoly intact.
Now, Cornyn is the senior senator from a state, Texas, which is one of a handful of American States, all of them in the so-called Bible Belt, that still has “dry” counties—those in which the sale of alcoholic beverages is illegal. This is a dreary leftover of the “temperance” movement in America, a religious-based crusade that began quite early in our country’s history, picked up steam throughout the nineteenth century, and finally resulted in the calamity of Prohibition, which, for fourteen years (1920-1033) made the sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages, including wine, illegal, except in the rarest of circumstances.
What people should understand about Cornyn, who also is against almost any form of gun control including background checks, is that politicians like him are the reason why liquor wholesalers continue to hold so much power over what the American people can and cannot drink. When Tom Wark says “today’s lawmakers tend to support this wholesaler manipulation and control of the alcohol beverage marketplace,” he must have had John Cornyn in mind.
Politicians often claim that their votes can’t be bought even if somebody contributes a lot of money to their campaigns. (I know, I know, Hillary says the same thing about her Wall Street donations.) But an analysis of where Cornyn gets his money shows an outsized presence of liquor distributors, almost all of them based in Texas. When Dallas-based Andrews Distributing, one of Texas’s biggest beer wholesalers, contributed to Cornyn, what did they get for it? How about Texas City-based Del Papa Distributing, or Corpus Christi-based L&f Distributing, or Amarillo-based Budweiser Distributing? The list goes on and on.
Why would any reasonable person be against direct sales from small family wineries to whomever wants to buy their wines (as long as they’re of legal drinking age)? Tom Wark points out the many reasons why the three-tiered system is antiquated. But it’s more than that: it’s also anti-democratic (with a small “d”) and thus anti-American. It’s ironic that people who argue with such passionate conviction about the virtues of a free market should side with one of the nation’s most monopolistic trusts, the liquor wholesalers. “Let the free market work,” Cornyn endlessly yammers—and yet, when it comes to putting his money (or rather, the distributors’ money) where his mouth is, Cornyn is conspicuously silent, a lacuna that helps to crush the very free market he praises.
The ironies pile up. A fund-raising company called the Aristeia Group held a “wine tasting reception” for Cornyn that asked for a minimum contribution of $1,000 for PACs and $250 for individuals. What is Aristeia Group? Well, in a single year, 2014, they gave more than $281,000 to “Texans for Senator John Cornyn,” but they also gave large amounts of money to the Rand Paul Victory Committee and the Alamo PAC, whose Federal Election Commission statement lists only a single individual “Leadership PAC Sponsor,” John Cornyn. And where does Alamo PAC get all this money to donate to its favorite politician? From the interests and lobbyists who attend the many BBQs, breakfasts and “dove hunts” they sponsor, every one of which lists as its sole beneficiary “John Cornyn.” Your cost of admission: at least $1,000 per event. A sweetheart deal, and we can only guess at the things Cornyn is forced to do for his benefactors.
Well, the tight little circle of PACs, campaign contributions and lobbying isn’t limited to any one political party, like I said, but a peek behind the murky scenes into the Cornyn-Aristeia-Alamo PAC-beer distributors cabal should be enough to make even die-hard free marketeers bewail the extent to which the true “free market” has been demolished, in the alcohol distribution industry and no doubt in others. Returning to a truly free market of wine distribution should be a non-partisan no-brainer, but for some reason, we’re not seeing it, and I wonder if we ever will, as long as some of these politicians are drinking off the teat of distributors.