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Top ten list of things gatekeepers could do a better job of explaining to consumers


People call people like me “gatekeepers.” Beyond the obvious definition of a person who controls passage through a gate, the more modern meaning of gatekeeping is a cultural one: according to Wikipedia, gatekeeping is “the process through which ideas and information are filtered for publication.”


In the wine industry, in addition to writers and critics, gatekeepers include any professionals who interface with consumers and can influence what they buy: sommeliers, restaurateurs and wine shop personnel.

I have always taken my position as a gatekeeper very seriously. But I’ll be the first to admit we don’t always do a very good job at giving consumers true, useful information about wine they can use to bust through stereotypes. I was reminded of this yesterday when I wrote my post about screwtops and somebody commented that screwtops would be a lot more acceptable to diners if sommeliers pushed or at least didn’t oppose their use. That led me to think, What else are we gatekeepers not doing enough (or doing too much of)? Here’s my top 10 list of things that gatekeepers could do a better job of letting people know:

1 screwtops aren’t just for cheap wine
2. the relationship between price and quality is not as absolute as most people think
3. just because a wine comes from a single-vineyard that is designated on the label means nothing
4. a high score does not reflect a wine’s affinity for food
5. a particular varietal that comes from a region famous for that varietal can be terrible
6. the weight of the bottle is meaningless and can be misleading
7. ditto the beauty of the label
8. ditto the faux wax seal which is often just an excuse to charge an extra $15
9. a wine described as “dry” can actually contain residual sugar that interferes with food pairing
10. the official alcohol reading on the label can be seriously off

I’m sure I could come up with others, but then it wouldn’t be a Top Ten List.

  1. Some other revelations to the consumer to consider adding:

    A list of the Gatekeeper’s qualifications that allow him/her to comment on others’ work:

    1. I worked in wine production.
    2. I grew grapes.
    3. I have a degree in either viticulture or oenology.
    4. I am Jancis Robinson and wrote an encyclopedia.

  2. It’s been a while so here goes, Steve…

    1 screwtops aren’t just for cheap wine
    True, they are merely for ease and early consumption.
    2. the relationship between price and quality is not as absolute as most people think
    True, just consider the Rolls Royce and other English automobiles.
    3. just because a wine comes from a single-vineyard that is designated on the label means nothing
    Untrue, it is a mark from which we may seek or avoid.
    4. a high score does not reflect a wine’s affinity for food
    True, most critics probably are not always scoring with food in their mouths.
    5. a particular varietal that comes from a region famous for that varietal can be terrible
    True, growers and winemakers frequently screw up opportunity.
    6. the weight of the bottle is meaningless and can be misleading
    Untrue, it does mean that the bottle is heavy. Period.
    7. ditto the beauty of the label
    Untrue, we beholders will always be transfixed with beauty.
    8. ditto the faux wax seal which is often just an excuse to charge an extra $15
    Untrue, we charge an extra $25
    9. a wine described as “dry” can actually contain residual sugar that interferes with food pairing
    True, witness KJ

    10. the official alcohol reading on the label can be seriously off
    Define “seriously off”

    I’m sure I could come up with others, but then it wouldn’t be a Top Ten List.
    Is there a Heimoff top ten POSITIVE things that self-appointed gatekeepers should let folks know about?

  3. I wholeheartedly agree with both the topic and tone of your article, though I must admit, I would have trouble limiting myself to 10. My background is in the restaurant biz, though I have been writing a bit as well. I will resist my reflexive desire to defend sommeliers (many of us love screwcaps, despite the fact that they don’t offer us the opportunity to show off our stunning cork removal technique!) and just add that one of the things that both sommeliers and writers seem to be a little cloudy on is food/wine pairing in general (you get at some key specifics, but I’m talking about total failure here). We cling to ‘rules’ that may very well apply to old world wine and classic European cuisines, but rather than experimenting ourselves with new world wines and the amazing diversity of cuisine that is increasingly at our fingertips (and served in our restaurants). These rules, while they often contain a modicum of truth, demand us to test and experiment, and share our findings with our readers and guests. This is the responsibility of being a gatekeeper with regards to wine: to constantly search for the best ways to introduce people to the joys and interests, and to do it takes lots of hard work and research. And by hard work and research I mean, of course, drinking (I’m sorry, tasting), and being willing to taste the things that might be bad, on the off chance that we might be missing out on what is really good!

  4. wine salesman says:

    In my experience, what has influenced most buyers lately is, if they are getting a free TV for their bar, or free menu printing, or a free trip to a winery with over-night stay…unfortunately the small companys are getting edged out by large distributors and the “incentives” they offer. Mostly by sales reps with limited knowledge, limited resources, and really a limited amount of interaction besides “buy the wine, so I can make my quota…no, what if I threw in a flat screen for the bar”? I spend a good part of every visit trying to get the buyer to understand what the wine has to offer, why it is special, and what attributes it has to compare to the food menu, or the buying tendencies. I unfortunately don’t have the budget to “buy” my customers, I depend on relationships, knowledge and research. So, I respect your post, and think that if more “gatekeepers” were really in the business to educate, consumers would have a broad amount of wine to choose from…not just a by-the-glass list that is the same from restaurant to retail store.

  5. Here’s my top 5list of things that gatekeepers could do a better job of letting people know:
    1. The most popular wine brand (in terms of ounces consumed) in America doesn’t come in a glass bottle.
    2. White zinfandel is wine and the people who drink White Zin tend to have more taste buds than those who do not, and they tend to stick with White Zin.
    3. Food and wine pairing is a myth, you can enjoy whatever wine you want to drink with almost any food if you know how to prepare the food (a technique commonly referred to as “flavor balancing”).
    4. You can serve steamed asparagus with cabernet and the cabernet will taste great if you know how to prepare the asparagus.
    5. The most popular wine brand in America comes in a plastic bag.

  6. You will never, ever know how good a wine is until you taste it yourself.

  7. Sean Thorniley says:

    A good start list.
    What I love most about wine is the opportunity to chat with folks and wine quite often brings about an opportunity.
    My philosophy I spread to folks (and I talked with a wine maker about this last night at a tasting at my favorite wine lounge) is that a person who wants to educate folks about wine needs to have at least six words for each descriptor they use regarding wine, this will allow you to find a “dialect” that will better communicate with the individual(s).
    I find few things as satisfying as helping someone understand something, or it in a new way and things wine fertile ground for this!

  8. Steve, those guys in Beaujolais would like that extra $15/btl! They don’t even sell their wine for that. re: “8. ditto the faux wax seal which is often just an excuse to charge an extra $15”

    You must be referring to the rubber faux wax you see on some US wines.

  9. Love the list. Especially 10. I went to a wine bar in Napa and asked to taste their lower alcohol wines, it was lunch time. “All our wines are around 14-14.5” he said, adding that was low alcohol. I then explained the alcohol thing. And left, having tasted no wines, spent no money. Went to meet friends at the Azzurro Restaurant across the street. And had a great time, a lower alcohol wine, great food, and a great server.

  10. Corey Miller says:


    I agree with all of them.

    Part of the problem in my mind is that there is just too much to keep track of for the average consumer. Most of the items you listed are related to the fact that the AVERAGE wine consumer just wants a great bottle of wine. They see the label or the bottle weight as a shortcut to quality without really having to understand much about the wine.

    In California, people have the additional trouble of wading through every varietal planted in every region (a bit of an exaggeration, but you know what I mean). Most people have a sense that the label isn’t going to actually guarantee them a tasty wine, but they just don’t know how else to pick and assume that if the winery has a decent label, a heavy bottle, and a wax seal then the producer must know what they’re doing.

    Maybe the best way to teach people about most of things on your list is to scream out:


    And then more quietly explain some of the basics about how to evaluate that.

    What I’d like to see more of is, “continuing education for average wine drinkers”. People saying over and over again what their tasting strategy is, what they look for, and why they value certain things. Maybe even suggesting exercises to hone their skills when they come across bottles they think exemplify certain qualities. I’d like to see gatekeepers empowering consumers to taste on their own.

    Of course, learning to evaluate wine takes work, but if people felt more comfortable with their ability to do so, I think many of the crutches you list above would solve themselves.

  11. Morton Leslie says:

    You missed a few.

    1) You’re an adult, you don’t need anyone to tell you what to drink.
    2) You can make up your own mind by tasting different beverages and buying what you like.
    3) What you drink has no reflection on you as a person, but how you treat others does.
    4) There are more important things in life than whether your Beaujolais was over chilled.
    5) You are your own gatekeeper.

  12. I take issue with number 3. “just because a wine comes from a single-vineyard that is designated on the label means nothing”
    It means nothing? Nothing? C’mon. In most all cases it at least means there will be some uniqueness (good, bad or both) to the wine as compared to a regional blend from several vineyards. I’ve yet to encounter a single vineyard wine that wasn’t clearly a single vineyard wine. Whether that appeals to the taster is another matter.

    Also, the weight of the bottle isn’t meaningless. An extra heavy bottle means excess carbon emissions were generated in fabricating the bottle and transporting the bottle and product. This isn’t meaningless.

    I’m all for strong opinions, but I find such broad generalizations unhelpful — generally speaking.

  13. Joe, by “meaningless” on bottle weight, I mean to refer only to quality, and not to any other standards. As for vineyard designations, all they guarantee is origin. Nothing else.

  14. Morton, astute observations as usual. Thanks.

  15. Ray: Top 10 POSITIVE things:
    1. Drink more wine.
    2-10. Repeat #1

  16. Steve,
    Great start list- how about- as gatekeepers-
    -qualifying your customers, LISTENING to what they say, and tailoring the sugestions to their wants, their budget, and their food selections
    -NOT trying to sell them a wine merely because it is a made by a friend or a favorite producer, or got a big score…or is from a favorite wholesaler-some of the worst recommendations that I have had were recently by sommeliers in very credible Manhattan and Atlanta restaurants- red wines that were so overly acidic that the fruit and structure was hidden…we now call these “sommelier wines”, because I believe after tasting all day they seem to appeal to THEIR pallets…but wines that were horrendous with our meals- We had asked clearly for rich, layered, Syrah, Pinot, or red blends, even Merlot…what we recieved each time were astringent, lean, acidic wines with little fruit showing, amazing similar wines…from top new California producers….these were top Somm’s in their markets…one at a steakhouse to remain nameless in the shops at Colombus Circle in NY and another at a trendy new mid town restaurant in Atlanta
    -My wife and I are both National Sales Manager’s for different California Wineries, we could easily pick our own, but like to let the Somm’s help us choose…we are at the point of discontinuing this practice after several very poor $120- $150 choices….$$ were not the issue, just the style of the wines. I am a big believer that wine should not hurt.
    -My long winded point is that what the gatekeepers in my opinion after 25 years in the business should be doing is LISTENING to the customers FIRST, THEN giving them educated recommendations based on what fits their needs….flavor profile, price, food match- in short giving the customer MORE of what they want…leaving them feeling as though they received real value through the interaction, and that THEIR needs were respected and valued…consumers do not usually come to a restaurant or store to be educated…they come to enjoy themselves….why can’t we help them learn about our wines by giving them what they want…NOT what the sommelier wants or like…or worse yet needs to sell….
    and if I may be so bold…in this time of economic uncertainty and massive job loss, why not at least consider the positive impact on OUR economy of recommending wines from the United States….make it part of your own “stimulus package” to support our home economy PLEASE! Maybe it will give a winery employee more money to come to your restaurant or store……

  17. Mike, great points, especially about buying American. How can we get something going on this?

  18. Protectionist wine? Yikes. Should Californians stop exporting?

  19. Nice list, Steve. But I beg to differ on the beauty of the label. The wine does not know what bottle it is in, but people do, and labels remain a very powerful aspect of the wine experience.

    Best advice of all is Morton Leslie’s: Be your own gatekeeper.

  20. Morton:

    “5) You are your own gatekeeper.”

    Love it, love it, LOVE IT!!!

  21. I must say I don’t understand why so many wine lovers make these “anti-attractive packaging” statements. Of course the package should be beautiful. It should be as beautiful as the wine inside.

    As a winemaker, I think that when you have spent the years to make the best product you can you should want to present it in an attactive fashion. The package is part of the experience. It is no different than a chef taking extra time to plate your food to be attactive. Of course the taste has to be there, but the appearance also has importance. My wife likes the little blue Tiffany box. In fact she get’s excited about seeing the box without even knowing the contents.

    I think cars should have attactive design on the interior and exterior. I think you should wrap birthday presents because it looks nice.

    I agree that great packaging on a poor wine is folly, but I also appreciate those winemakers that make a great wine and back it up with an attactive package. It shows a level of care that is thoughtful and may(just may) indicate something about the care the wine goes though when it is being made. It does in my case.

  22. I like the buy American plea. Could use that right now!

    Also, I think Single Vineyards could be a sign of personnal commitment to a piece of land. I come from Burgundy, so I respect that a lot.

  23. Wine is very subjective; similar to art! IF YOU LIKE IT; IT’S GOOD WINE! IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT; IT’S BAD WINE!

    Like art, WINE CAN BE “TALKED TO DEATH” all of which is usually what S.I. Hayakawa termed in his book “LANGUAGE in Thought and Action” as “a nonsense argument”; that is, neither part can win!!!! So, what’s the point?

    Number 10 (a): Either drink it and enjoy it or spit it out! End of discussion!

  24. (the following really applies, not to the upscale wine professional, but to the day to day wait-staff that serve so much of America’s wine)

    “Cellar temperature” and “room temperature” are not the same thing, and “chilled” and “refrigerated” are not the same thing. Red wine should not be warm. White wine should not be near freezing, and you don’t need to keep dropping it back in the bucket of ice every time you pour half a glass.

  25. Greg Freeman says:

    Much of wine related debate stems from the variety of agendas from which participants arise. Steve’s current top ten comes from an agenda of the “thrifty objective consumer”. Label means nothing…vineyard source means nothing…the weight of the bottle means nothing…this is all true according to this one specific agenda that Steve has today. However, unlike Pepsi, Ketchup, and Budweiser many people are “into wine” for many other reasons than strictly a thrifty objective consumer agenda. Many are collectors or wine hobbyists that collect wine for the rarity, for the baseball trader in all of us, to have tried them all and to have an opinion about the various vineyards, etc. Some folks like to try all varietals from all appellations to become better informed. Many people are into wine for the romance and intrigue of it all, regardless of that being total BS to Steve, there just may be a couple out to dinner somewhere who are totally naive about wine and order up a gorgeously attractive bottle of single vineyard malbec and the 5 pound bottle shows up to the table and the overall effect makes them feel very good and special and happy, isn’t there some worth in that? Even if the wine is ordinary, they just might experience a placebo “quality enhancement” derived from the packaging…just maybe…Also, not everyone is looking to pair wine with food all the time. Personally, I tend to drink wine as a cocktail, not with food, so I love wine regardless of alcohol levels and sugar levels and am not bothered that a wine might interfere with my food. I tire of the nouveau gatekeepers hellbent on deconstructing wine and showing through over their top irreverence how pedestrian wine really is and how un-pretentious they can be and we all should be…why not recognize there are a myriad of wine movers out there, in it for a myriad of reasons, respect the folks who appreciate a little “magic” in their wine experience and respect those who want to blind taste a high quality product unskewed by packaging…try not to speak to every wine lover from one agenda. By qualifying your agenda, your list will be more relevant. Gifting with a bottle of wine is something that happens thousands of times a day and night all over the world…imagine not having the option to select a nice “looking” bottle to give your friends who may not be wine experts. Just hand them a sack of red wine and you tell them, trust me, it’s good, it just looks like uninteresting packaged wine product.

  26. STEVE,
    I am all for doing anything and everything to move the BUY AMERICAN WINE thing forward right now…I travel a lot for work, selling our wine…and suggest it as the correct thing to do in these times…how CAN we take it broader scale? As to Kathy’s comment on protectionism, I think she missed the point completely…I am not suggesting we restrict imports at all, just don’t purchase them…Kathy- how many American Malbecs..or Cabernets do you think are sold in Argentina every day?? …and by the way, wine is made in almost every state in the US, not just California…
    On the packaging issue, coming from my sales side…great packaging is what often gets a consumer to try a wine at retail the FIRST time…after that it has to have good wine IN the bottle for a repeat purchase….it is more competitive and far tougher in the marketplace right now than EVER before in our US wine (and restaurant industry) we can use all of the support we can muster…it only benefits US….and it is not a hardship to spend a few dollars on a great meal and a great bottle of US made wine.

  27. Isn’t the point here to SELL American?
    Why is buying American, and therefore buying local, better?
    If I buy local in Kentucky then I don’t buy California. If I buy local in Virginia, then I don’t buy in the other 49 states.
    An awful lot of American (not just California) wineries sell beyond the borders. The euro is rising again and the dollar falling. And that hurts our ability to sell American.
    Protectionism hurts America. Trade is, as is implies, a two-way street.
    Read your history and see how protectionism prolonged the Depression.

  28. How about ABPN (Anything But Pinot Noir)? Okay, it’s not nearly as catchy as ABC, but I think many new wine consumers are getting stuck in a Pinot Noir world. I suppose there is always a varietal/brand/etc. of the moment, but one of the services a gatekeeper can provide is working to counteract trends and fads, rather than reinforce them, to help keep consumers open to exploring the world of wines.

  29. Eric, you have got to be kidding!! Pinot Noir just got here, and now you want to denounce it as a fad? No, my friend, California Pinot Noir is here to stay.

  30. Oh no, I certainly want it to stay, just like California Cab, but it is grossly overrepresented by gatekeepers (at least around here in San Diego, maybe that varies). The fad isn’t the varietal, it’s the heavy pushing of it by gatekeepers. New wine drinkers aren’t expanding their world by introducing Pinot to them – for some it is all they know!

  31. merlotman says:

    I concur with winesalesman, these big distributors are sending in dumb as a box of synthetic corks sales reps! Only wanting to sell cardboard and lots of it! Very little wine knowledge. No street smarts, no food pairing education, fresh out of college and Frat parties with coors light! But hey they have higher education! There was a time when a wine rep would train waitstaff or give tech/tasting notes to a buyer, now we have Cupcake wines….is there a Cupcake winery to visit?….thanks for a little venting…now on to a coors light?

  32. merlotman, couldn’t agree more. It was that way when I first got into wine writing and it’s that way now.

  33. I work for one of those big distributors… and i know, we do hire a lot of fresh college students with ZERO wine knowledge. On the flip side, there a lot more retail outlets where the experienced knowledgable buyer no longer exists. in my experience, after many year of seeking wine knowledge on my own time, it’s frustrating to explain your product to a 20 year old clerk, or a middle aged clerk with a limited use of the english language. or talk to a restaurant “manager” who now picks the wine list because he’s the only server in the place who has not quit yet and knows the difference between chard, cab and merlot. but they cannot talk to you right now because the patron rep just brought him a new surfboard…. Grrrr


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