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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.


How nature and fashion influence alcohol levels and the three-tiered system

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In 1999 the futurist Stewart Brand, whose Whole Earth Catalog galavanized a generation of environmentalists and alternative lifestylists, published “The Clock of the Long Now,” in which he introduced the notion of “pace” into the analysis of history.

Brand came up with six “layers” of human existence;

 

StewartBrand

each layer proceeds at a different pace, in a sort of celestial-mechanical model whereby Mercury rounds the Sun far faster than Neptune. Only in Brand’s model, the speeds are reversed: The outermost layer, “Fashion,” moves at the quickest pace. This is why hemlines go up and down every season on the runway, and why wine writers are able to proclaim new “styles” with each passing vintage. Fashion changes constantly; the mullet is now hopelessly out of fashion. Not that long ago, everybody wanted to look like Andre Agassi.

andre-agassi

Brand’s inmost layer, Nature, moves at the slowest pace. Evolution and geology are its most visible indices. The Sierra Nevada has taken tens of millions of years to rise; the Grand Canyon did not spring into existence overnight due to the whimsy of some flood. Not for nothing do we refer to the timespan of Nature as “glacial.” (We can have a discussion of global warming some other time!)

Glacier

Inbetween Fashion’s furious rush and Nature’s leisurely progression, from inmost to outermost, are Culture, Governance, Infrastructure and Commerce. Culture requires a long time to change; witness the world battles currently underway that have been going on since the dawn of history. Governance is almost as hard to change as Culture, but when change does occur, it can come swiftly, as with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Infrastructure occupies a sort of midway point between Fashion’s speed and Nature’s lethargy; as we are reminded every time a bridge collapses in America, or our cars bounce over an urban pothole, changing the Infrastructure requires human will, such as that shown by President Eisenhower, a Republican, when he promoted the Interstate Highway System.

Between Infrastructure and Fashion sits Commerce. Brand sees Commerce as occupying a vital place the scheme of things: If it derives its impulses from the outermost layer (Fashion), it risks becoming “unfettered [and] unsupported by watchful governance and culture…it easily becomes crime.” And yet, we don’t want commerce to become too regulated, lest it lose its ability to flexibly react to changing conditions.

We can apply Brand’s “pace” model to the situation we find ourselves in with regard to wine. It is, in fact, a useful tool for analyzing every issue, from the continued popularity of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay to the contemporary debate over alcohol levels. It’s apparent that the latter—alcohol content—is purely a matter of Fashion. As Brand writes, “The job of fashion…is to be froth: quick, irrelevant, engaging, self-preoccupied, and cruel. Try this! No, no, try this!” What is in today may be out tomorrow, as Heidi Klum always warns contestants on Project Runway.

By contrast humankind’s liking of wine stems more from Culture, “the work of whole peoples” as Brand describes it, and of Nature itself, “inexorable and implacable,” which somehow has programmed us (and other forms of animal life) to delight in the slight intoxication of alcohol, and in wine in particular, that most natural of alcoholic beverages.

What of the dominance of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay in America? We can see in this a balancing act between the slow-motion pace of Nature and Culture, which act to keep change from happening too quickly, and the “froth” of Fashion, which, if it dominated, would have had us by now become a nation of Fioletovy Ranny drinkers. There always will be wine critics, sommeliers and others who try to push the nation’s tastes towards the exotic and rare; also always will be pushback from people who know what they like and don’t want to change. This tension—between the more conservative elements and the more radical ones—is healthy. The system itself reinforces dialogue: “the pace layers…provide many-leveled corrective, stabilizing negative feedback [loops] throughout the system. It is precisely in the apparent contradictions of pace that civilization finds its surest health.”

We may even use Brand’s pace system to make predictions. Will the three-tiered system survive? In its favor are the slower-moving layers of Nature and Culture, both of which tend to abhor change and to support the status quo. Against the system’s continuance are Fashion and Commerce: both suggest greater flexibility, innovativeness and individual choice for the consumer.

Between Nature and Culture, on the one hand, and Fashion and Commerce, on the other, lie two key layers: Governance and Infrastructure. The former right now is largely immobile, from many points of view; the U.S. Congress is unlikely anytime soon to interfere with the three-tiered system, while the Courts likewise have not shown that they’re particularly eager to take up the issue (despite the 2005 Granholm v. Heald decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has resulted in hardly any change, and was in any case a 5-4 vote that could have gone either way).

That leaves Infrastructure as the sole remaining hope for upsetting if not ending the three-tiered system. A nation of consumers that has happily embraced the Internet, with its notions of untaxed online transactions, net neutrality and infinite choice, may decide on its own that it does not want its shopping decisions hampered in any way, by Governance, by Commerce or anything else. As the Infrastructure of online commerce develops in ways that are completely unpredictable, we can be sure of this: The arc bends towards freedom. That is not a good sign for a confusing, paperwork-swamped system that currently restricts what and how people can buy.


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.


“Wine is sold, not bought”

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That’s the word from Michael Brill, who started up Crushpad years ago.

He was commenting on my blog post from yesterday, and when I read those words my brain fired on all cylinders because the phrase is not only pithy, it’s true, and made me think. What does it mean, “Wine is sold, not bought?”

Obviously, wine is bought. But selling precedes buying; you can’t buy something that someone’s not selling. And since everyone is selling these days in the wine industry, you clearly have to sell better than everybody else if you want to sell anything at all!

Well, that’s pretty obvious, isn’t it, but the point I want to make is that selling has become harder than ever nowadays, and so it requires smarter ways of doing it. You have to think outside the box. Everybody’s trying to think outside the box, which means that the space “outside the box” is getting crowded–it’s no longer “outside the box” but inside the box. (A little Zen paradox there…) So you have to get even further outside in order to be truly outside the box. That, in turn, means you have to know where the box is: which implies clear perception. Which implies knowledge, because knowledge is power. This is why the smartest people are generally the most successful in selling wine, and I don’t mean just I.Q. smart, I mean creative, visionary, driven, even a little mad.

Speaking of Mr. Brill, he’s launching a new business. It’s called Cruzu, and here’s how he explained it to me. (Any dumb mistakes I made in taking down his remarks are mine, not his.)

“It’s a crowd-funding source for wine, Kickstarter for wine. Independent winemakers and small wineries can create wines backed [financially] by wine enthusiasts. In exchange for backing, the backers get a combination of a good deal on the wine; they follow the winemakers and create a relationship with them. It’s a little Crushpaddy…”.

As with Kickstarter, Michael will list specific projects on the Cruzu website, projects brought to his attention by the winemakers themselves. If a project gets funded, it goes ahead; if not, it doesn’t. Michael asked me not to mention any names at this point, but I can tell you there will be some very good, high-level winemakers involved, some of them familiar from his Crushpad days.

Cruzu sounds interesting and very apropos for our times. With a recovering economy, people may feel like they have the extra cash for fun stuff like this. And the ethos sparked by social media—of interactivity, of connectedness, of wanting to be heard—is perfectly in tune with Michael’s idea of “creating a relationship” between wine drinker and winemaker.

I wish Michael, who’s always been an outside of the box thinker, well.


The Hill grape fraud case does NOT taint Napa Valley!

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Last week’s very long (3,700 word) article in the New York Times about the Jeff Hill case has stirred up tension in Napa Valley, where some people think the author, Vindu Goel, went over the top in painting Napa as a place where wine quality is “built on quicksand.”

(Some of you might not be able to open the NYT link if you don’t have a Times subscription. Even if you can’t, you can probably find it on Google.)

Last Spring, Mr. Hill, a vineyard manager, was charged with grand theft for allegedly stealing tens of thousands of dollars worth of grapes from a client during the 2013 harvest.

Reporter Goel took the serious and significant charges of fraud in the Hill case and, some folks say, stretched them to tar Napa’s reputation in general. Prices of Napa wine, Goel wrote, are based more on consumers’ belief in the superiority of the region’s grapes than in the inherent quality of the liquid in the bottle.”

And “[M]any bottles on wine-store shelves aren’t what they seem because of loopholes in American wine labeling laws,” he added, based on an interview with the master sommelier, Emmanuel Kemiji. The inescapable implication is that a top-notch Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon may contain “a cheaper grape varietal like syrah or zinfandel” that could be from “anywhere else in the state, like Fresno.” Most damaging of all Goel’s assertions, perhaps, is this one, which suggests that spin and hype, rather than quality, are behind Napa Valley’s reputation as the supreme place to make wine in America: “Much of Napa’s price premium stems from savvy marketing, not any objective superiority of the wine.”

Reactions, mostly offended, have come from in and around Napa Valley. My friend Lewis Perdue (for whom I used to work, years ago), in Wine Industry Insight took particular umbrage over what he perceived as the Times’ unfair broadside.

“NY Times Uses Hill Wine Company Debacle To Take A Shot At Napa Valley,” he headlined, explaining that the article left an overall impression that varietal fraud and some level of adulteration were relatively common practices” in Napa.

Here’s my take. Most of what Goel wrote is objectively true, based on the facts. U.S. labeling laws do allow for up to one-quarter of a varietally-labeled wine to consist of varietal/s other than the named one. Those same laws also allow for a certain percentage of the grapes to come from areas other than the official appellation on the label. And, yes, part of the rationale for Napa Valley wine prices is due to Napa Valley’s reputation.

Did Goel go over the line? Yes. Dropping the word “Fresno” into that sentence was both unnecessary, and calculated to shock. It’s a little like the famously self-incriminating question, When did you stop beating your wife? Now that Goel has implanted the thought in people’s minds that Napa Valley wine may contain grapes from Fresno, there’s no way Napa vintners can convince them that it’s not true, no matter what they say.

Granted that Mr. Hill may (or may not) have been a crook, it’s hyperbole and unprofessional to use a single case to stain an entire region: it’s like saying that fraud is widespread in Burgundy based on the Rudy Kurniawan case, or that all of Bordeaux is suspect because a famous chateau once used illegal wood chips instead of real barrels.

It was also a little misleading for Goel to use Kemiji’s quotes to suggest that Napa Valley’s terroir is no different from any other place. Emmanuel (who I suspect didn’t know how his quote would be used) said, “You line up cabernets from Napa and good-quality cabernet from Sonoma and Lake County, and it’s really tough to say where they’re from.” This is true; as someone who’s tasted countless Cabs from those areas (and many others), I know it’s not easy pinpointing where a great Cabernet comes from. But still, it misses the point.

For the fact is that Napa Valley produces more great Cabernet Sauvignon than any other place in America, and has for a very long time, which surely gives it legitimate claim to prestige; and every prestigious region and wine in the history of the world has been considered more desirable—and thus more costly—than the competition.

As for Goel’s contention that “savvy marketing” is behind Napa’s success, this doesn’t stand up to the facts. Napa Valley achieved its success well before the modern era of marketing. The fame of the boutique wineries of the 1960s and 1970s wasn’t due to P.R., which most of those little wineries didn’t know anything about, but to the appreciation of educated wine lovers who recognized that what they were experiencing was something special. Besides, “savvy marketing” may give a winery or region fifteen minutes of fame—but if the stuff in the bottle doesn’t live up to the hype, the fame is fleeting. That is emphatically not the case with Napa Valley.

There is no evidence whatsoever—not a sniff or a shred—to suggest that the majority, or even a significant minority, of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons are not what they say they are: grown and produced in the valley, and made from Bordeaux varietals. (And besides, if adding 2% Syrah makes the wine better, who cares?) I also suspect that, when Kemiji told Goel that “there is an incentive to fudge [on blending] because the price of Napa cabernet is so high,” he didn’t know in what context his words would be used. I’m a longtime reporter myself; I know the game. Some questions are a form of entrapment. The reporter who goes into the interview knowing what points he wants to prove, and then asks set-up questions, is not being objective or fair.

Honestly, Goel’s story is a combination of personal anecdotes, irrelevant throw-ins and editorializing, in addition to the facts. Rather than illuminating an interesting story, it feeds into America’s current obsession with conspiracy theories, in this case that “wine quality” is an elitist myth, and that everything is equal because it’s not permitted for anything to be better. Breitbart.com, an online news service, covered the Hill case, and here’s a telling comment one of their readers sent in:

“I always got a kick out of these wine snobs. I knew you could give them a swig of Night Train™ and tell them it’s gourmet and they would believe it. sort of like the ‘art community’… a crappy painting of campbell’s soup cans garners millions ?????” The commenter is entitled to his opinion, of course, but it’s pathetic that the truth is lost in the shuffle: Night Train is not as good as Napa Valley Cabernet, period, end of story. And no “gourmet” in the world would ever confuse it for such.

I’m not saying the Hill case isn’t worthy of reporting, or that the Times shouldn’t have allowed Goel to run with it. What I am saying is that American journalism has sunk to its lowest level in my lifetime, in terms of scandal-mongering. What Woodward and Bernstein set in motion, nearly 40 years ago, has run amok. Not every instance of law-breaking is a major scandal. Sometimes an illegal act is just that: The isolated act of a single individual, not an indication that an entire region is unscrupulous.


Talking to an audience with different levels of wine knowledge

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That was part of my challenge last week at a wine dinner I hosted, for Jackson Family Wines, at Ling & Louie’s, a fine Asian-fusion bistro in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Seasoned speakers know it’s helpful to have advance knowledge of who your audience is. (Actually, it’s “whom” your audience is, but that sounds so precious.) The more you know about them—their backgrounds, careers, level of wine knowledge—the better you can tailor your remarks to their interests and desires.

But this advance knowledge isn’t always possible, which is why some speakers will start things off by asking the audience questions. Where are you guys from? Do you work in the wine industry? Are you casual wine drinkers or collectors? Starting on this interrogatory note not only informs the speaker, it’s an ice-breaker that establishes an interactive back-and-forth, drawing the audience in and softening the initial atmosphere, which may be stiff, into one of cordiality and ease.

Sometimes, as I imply in the headline, your guests’ wine knowledge is all over the place. On Friday I had serious collectors as well as folks who couldn’t tell a Zinfandel from a xylophone. In this case, you have to tread a careful middle way. You don’t want to talk down to the true wine geeks, or to go over the heads of the novices. It’s a balancing act, but careful listening and sensitivity will help you hold everyone’s interest.

One thing that commonly happens is that a novice will ask a simple question whose answer the experts already know. You want to help the novice understand, but you don’t want to bore the experts. I’ve found that there are ways to answer the simple questions that will engage even the most knowledgeable people in the room.

For example, on Friday a woman asked me why Burgundy and California Pinot Noir taste so different (she preferred California), since they’re made from the same grape variety. You could see the Burgundy guys roll their eyes. I answered by asking the woman to imagine a globe of the planet. “See the lines of latitude in the northern hemisphere? Find Burgundy, then trace the latitude westward, across the Atlantic and the North American continent to the Pacific coast. Now, where are you?”

Before she could answer, someone (a guy) shouted out “Oregon. Washington.”

“Exactly,” I said. Then I went on, “Now, find Central California on our globe and follow the latitude line eastward, across North America and the Atlantic to Europe. Where are you?”

“Italy,” someone said.

“That’s right,” I said, “and not just Italy, but southern Italy, even Sicily. Now, imagine the difference in climate, and in summer daylight hours, between, say, Portland/Seattle and Sicily. Heat and sun ripen all fruit, including grapes. And that, my dear” (I told the woman, who was a sweet older lady) “is why Burgundy tastes different from California Pinot Noir. California is riper.”

The lady gave me a big smile. “That’s the first time I’ve ever gotten an answer to that question I could understand,” she said. She was happy, and I think I kept the interest of even the hard-core collectors.

Of course, the collectors would have been pleased to get into a detailed rap about Kimmeridgian soil, slopes, winemaking techniques and all that, but that would have been a MEGO moment for everybody else. So we had struck a balance. It’s also fair to point out that people in the audience at events like this have their own responsibility for its success. There’s always a “most knowledgeable guy in the room” who, devoid of manners, will want to drop his expertise just to show off, or perhaps to challenge the speaker. Fortunately, most experts have the awareness and self-control to behave themselves, in order to foster the greater good, which is the audience’s happiness. The experts at my event certainly behaved responsibly, and I made it a point, as best I could, to hang out with them afterward.

I never forget that my guests don’t have to be there. They choose to be there, thereby doing me an honor. The least a host can do is return the honor by respectfully listening and sensitively leading everyone in the same direction.

* * *

Tomorrow is my session at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, in the lovely capital of California, Sacramento. Our topic: Content is King: How to Craft and Feature Stories that Stand Out. I’m moderator; fortunately,I have some truly great panelists. It’s amazing how this meme of “the story” has grabbed hold of the wine industry’s marketing and communications people, isn’t it. Anyhow, if you’re there, come on up and say hi.


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